Editor's note: This opinion piece has changed since it was originally posted, based on the correction of a mistake.
To some, “sick building syndrome” sounds like an invented phrase designed to create a new industry.
But to those who have experienced health problems at work, the broad label – it was first coined in the 1970s – was music to their ears. It was a recognition that such annoying symptoms as sore throats or eyes, dry cough and even fatigue, that seemed to disappear upon leaving a building, may indeed have been a result of external forces rather than being related to their personal health care in general.
A recent WorkSafeBC report called out the University of Victoria for not adequately protecting the health and safety of its employees in the Sedgewick building, home to UVic’s communications department. Mould spores and high carbon dioxide levels had been found but were not definitively determined to have contributed to symptoms experienced by employees working there.
UVic had been looking into the problems as far back as 2009, following numerous complaints from staff. Still, WorkSafe, which received a employee complaint about Sedgewick in 2011, found not enough was done to remedy air quality problems in the building.
In these days of economic uncertainty, people are fearful of losing their jobs if they complain and are often reluctant to speak up when working conditions are less than ideal.
It takes great courage for an employee to stand up for their right to a healthy work environment, especially when the source of illness or discomfort is not immediately apparent. It also takes courage for management to do the right thing, even if that means spending money on something not in the budget.
As with the identity theft case that prompted the university to tighten up its security, UVic, one of Canada’s top employers, has an opportunity to show leadership again by getting to the bottom of the Sedgewick problems. By adhering to WorkSafeBC’s orders and instituting an environmental health policy for all its buildings, it can ensure employees’ concerns are taken seriously.