|Vol. 11, No. 16
||Aug. 27 -
Sept. 9, 1998
It Out With Noisy Colleagues
Noise Protection on the Job No Easy Task
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
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
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
John Dallas is founder of the Bronx Campaign for
Peace and Quiet. You can write to him in care of: Norwood
News, 75 E.
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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