Vol. 11, No. 19 Oct. 8 - 21, 1998



     
 

Getting the Runaround on Office Sound

 SOUND ADVICE
By JOHN DALLAS

This is the third and final column in a series on office noise.

QUESTION: I am a city employee. For several years I have had to work in an environment where most of my co-workers listen to a radio or walkman. The noise interferes greatly with my concentration. It also disturbs a few other workers, who have complained to me but taken no action. What I want to know is, don't I have a right to a workplace where I can do my job in peace and quiet? --Donald Kaplan

ANSWER: I contacted the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A spokeswoman, Christina Manos, said she consulted the department's noise experts, who told her that "general workplace noise is a matter for the Department of Health and OSHA." "We don't have any authority on this issue," she explained. "DEP is primarily responsible for industrial and commercial noise as it affects residents."

So I contacted the city Department of Health. My call was returned by a gentleman from the agency's Office of External Affairs, who, after venting at length about the unfairness of the Daily News series on the Health Department's failure to adequately inspect restaurants, apparently had only enough strength left to repeat: "This is not a department issue. It's a courtesy issue."

"Even where noise is compromising several workers' mental and physical health?" I asked.

"It really wouldn't be appropriate for you to list the Health Department as a point of contact," he said.

Although a nobody, I dared to make contact with the mayor's press office -- no less than eight times in the course of a week. And why not? Hizzoner is the supreme commander of city agencies, as well as sworn enemy No. 1 of every manner of nuisance. My question for him was simply this: Would he, in his continuing fight against noise pollution, consider mandating that workstations in city agencies be free from TVs, radios, and walkmans?

After a number of return phone calls from a Germaine Feblus, during which I was asked to fax over your letter or give your name; or told that the director was on vacation; or promised a quote from the director, I wound up with the simplest possible answer to my simple query: none.

Disappointed but undissuaded, I directed my question to the Office of the Mayor's Counsel. My barrage of calls achieved a return call from Augustino Cangemi, an assistant counsel. After clarifying that he was not speaking for the mayor but as an attorney, he hypothesized: "The mayor could implement policies -- I'm not sure how he would [in this case]. He may be able to do it through, like, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services -- just in his capacity as an executive who has a work force, and there usually are reasonable rules that could be put in place.

"It may be a subject of discussions with the labor unions. But it might be something that need not go that far. But as far as I know, there are no current plans to do any of that. So I'm not really sure how significant that authority is."
I contacted the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and spoke with Deniece Collins, assistant commissioner for external affairs. She said that each city agency has a departmental advocate who sees that city and departmental personnel policies are carried out. This advocate can also propose and create new directives. In any event, "all [city] employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that will reflect favorably upon them, upon the department, and upon the city," said Collins, indulging me by reading straight from the personnel manual. "[T]hey are not to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to good order and discipline."

Last but not least, I spoke with your agency's deputy commissioner for public information. He said that policy is set on a unit-by-unit basis, and that although there's no general prohibition against playing radios and walkmans, there is a department-wide understanding that "where people have cubicles and it's easy for others to overhear, music should be played so as not to disturb others." What about an outright ban? "Out of the question."

The deputy commissioner did mention that it's inappropriate for workers who come into contact with the public to wear headphones. "When people come in the door and see this, it gives a bad impression," he said. But what about its overall impact on concentration and efficiency -- and some workers' health? Once again, that simplest possible answer.

John Dallas is founder of the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet. Write to him in care of: Norwood News, 75 E. 208th St., Bronx, NY 10467.

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