Vol. 11, No. 16 Aug. 27 - Sept. 9, 1998


Working It Out With Noisy Colleagues


Noise Protection on the Job No Easy Task

UESTION: 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: Your question will be the subject of the next three columns. The issues your question raises and the information I've gathered are so interesting that I thought they deserved a series. We'll start with the views of legal experts
According to Judith Vladeck, an attorney specializing in workplace issues, "There is no right to be free from noise. There is, however, the question of whether an employer must accommodate an employee where noise is disruptive to his or her emotional disability." Moreover, Vladeck said, "The courts have said that people are not entitled to a stress-free environment." [emphasis added].

As for workplace rights in general, Vladeck had some very interesting, if troubling, comments. Troubling, because we Americans, perhaps more than any other group on the planet, instinctively believe that we have rights that are inalienable at all times and in all places. But, Vladeck admonished: "You don't have Constitutional rights on your job. Yes, certain types of discrimination are prohibited; you must be paid a certain level of wages. However, a worker is essentially not entitled to due process, free speech or fair treatment."

This is especially the case with private employers; government employees are a different class of workers, noted Vladeck. "A worker leaves his Constitutional rights at the factory gates." Or at the office door.

These views were echoed by another labor attorney, who asked that his name be withheld. "The workplace," he asserted, "is not a democracy. It's unfortunate. All kinds of reasonable propositions have nothing to do with the employment context. Employers retain incredible powers over the working conditions of employees. There is a great deal of stuff that is unfair but not unlawful."

Referring to your particular situation, this attorney said that "since there are no separate laws regarding a noise-free or radio-free work station, unlike those that give you a right to a smoke-free environment," your only recourse is to go to your employer and complain. He added that if at least two of you complain, neither of you could be fired because of protections in the National Labor Relations Act.

Richard Briffault, a professor of labor law at Columbia Law School, agreed that there is little in the law to protect noise victims at work. "There are certain conditions that as a matter of public policy are prohibited in the workplace," Briffault said. "Noise is not one of them. Especially noise levels that are irritating but do not constitute a danger to health."

The professor described noise as inevitable in the workplace, the natural by-product of the concentration of many people in a limited space. Workers, he observed, are therefore in much the same situation as occupants of multiple dwellings: They must be fairly tolerant of others' noises, and have legal recourse only in exceptional circumstances. "There are cases when the noise level rises to the level of an assault and causes harm, and the law requires the landlord to act," Briffault said. "The same would, in legal theory, apply to employers."

Since you are a public employee and belong to a union (which I know to be the case from our phone conversations), Briffault encourages you to scrutinize your collective bargaining agreement -- which should contain provisions regarding health and safety -- and then speak with the shop steward.

In sum, you do not have a legal right to a workplace where you can work in peace and quiet. Don't despair, though. Something in the next two columns is bound to be helpful.

John Dallas is founder of the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet. You can write to him in care of: Norwood News, 75 E.

Recent Sound Advice Columns include:

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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