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Hot Debate Over Smoking At Work Bill Would Let Companies Make Their Own Rules For Smokers

Thu., April 3, 1997

Jenny Pulver, a smoker, thinks the state should butt out and let companies make their own rules to control smoking at work. Critics contend doing so would bring secondhand smoke back to the workplace.

The two sides clashed Wednesday at a hearing on a bill to repeal state rules that tightly limit smoking in private-sector offices.

The measure, which passed the Republican-led Senate last month, would revise the law to allow bosses and employees to decide among themselves where and under what conditions smoking would be allowed in the workplace. It is expected to pass the GOP House, but could draw a veto from Gov. Gary Locke.

“We haven’t really discussed it yet,” said Locke’s chief lobbyist, Marty Brown.

Under the proposal, SB 5666, the employer and employees can simply agree to name a “designated smoking room.”

The crucial element of the measure - the one that makes it so different from current law - is that the company could choose any ventilation method agreed upon by the employees, even if it were no more than an open window or door.

Current law allows companies to maintain a smoking room, but only if the rooms meet stringent ventilation requirements. The ventilation system must be capable of removing all smoke from the building, and the system cannot be connected to any other ventilation system that might allow the smoke to be recirculated into nonsmoking areas.

At a hearing before the House Commerce and Labor Committee, foes of the current law said the requirements are so cumbersome and expensive that most companies simply require their workers to smoke outside.

Pulver, of Redmond, said she is forced to go outside every time she wants a smoke.

Pulver, who works for a shipping company she declined to name, said she works the graveyard shift, which means it is dark outside and she must smoke in an unlighted area.

“It is an unsafe situation,” she said. Pulver and other backers of the bill said it would make more sense for each company to fashion its own smoking policy, based on the needs of employees.

“We believe companies can work things out among themselves for the benefit of smokers and nonsmokers alike. We don’t need the state involved in this,” said Sen. Ray Schow, R-Federal Way, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Schow said he expected the bill to pass the House, but added, “it will be tough” to get it past the Democratic governor.

But critics said the proposal would result in nonsmokers again being exposed to secondhand smoke, which the Environmental Protection Agency has listed as a cause of lung cancer.

What happens when a nonsmoker doesn’t like a smoking policy hammered out by smokers when one or more of the smokers happens to be a boss? asked Robbie Stern, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council.

“That person is going to have to go up against the boss, and if you don’t have a union to protect you, that can be dangerous,” Stern said. The result is workers again will be breathing secondhand smoke produced by their smoking co-workers, he said.

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