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Business/Economy

Alaska wildfire smoke is making me ill, but my boss won’t install an air purifier

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: August 20
  • Published August 19

Q: I work for a small business near Cooper Landing and am worried I’ll be fired for calling in sick so often because I’m really sensitive to poor air quality.

I’ve purchased my own portable air purifier and think my employer should be willing to purchase a larger system. He isn’t. He says air purifiers won’t work because customers come in and out of our workplace all day long. He basically says he isn’t responsible for the Swan Lake fire and the situation won’t last much longer. He gets mad at me for complaining and says that when I call in sick, it’s harder for everyone else.

I just want to be able to stay home or go to my parents’ home in Anchorage on days the air quality is bad. The situation started to get better but just this weekend has gone from bad to worse. Do I have any recourse if I’m fired?

A: You raise a safety issue and hopefully you and your employer can work together on this. If you’re fired for trying to maintain your health, you may have a potential grievance under the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Act.

Let your employer know that on July 29, the California Division of OSHA issued emergency regulations concerning what employers in that state must do to protect employees from the potential harm caused by wildfire smoke. While these regulations relate to only “exposed” workplaces -- those that aren’t in enclosed buildings with mechanical ventilation and the ability to close all windows and doors -- affected employers need to monitor their local Air Quality Index and take steps to protect their employees from wildfire smoke-related particulate matter if air quality levels rise to “unhealthy” or “hazardous.”

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While Alaska employers aren’t under these regulations, they are subject to OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that could cause serious physical harm. I believe your employer takes a risk if he fires you for calling in sick.

Q: My coworker loves her job but hates our boss. While I like my coworker and want to support her as a person, her complaints get on my nerves, particularly since she doesn’t do anything to fix the situation. When I tell her, “I think you should bring this issue up to our boss,” she answers, “Won’t work. Tigers don’t change their stripes.”

Our boss isn’t that bad. He’s a bit OCD, but if you don’t get wound up yourself when he gets uptight, he calms down and backs off. I’ve told my coworker several times how to handle him, but she says she “shouldn’t have to” and then goes right back to telling me how she’s losing sleep over the situation.

A couple times lately she’s come to me in tears, and I think she wants me to talk to our boss on her behalf. Should I?

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A: If you agree that your boss needs to change, and you have a good relationship with him, you’re in a good position to raise the topic. He might listen to you given that you don’t appear to blame him when he gets uptight and have figured out how to work well with him.

Your coworker, however, appears to own a considerable part of this problem without being willing to make an effort. As her friend, you would likely tell her that she had a piece of her lunch stuck to her chin. What keeps you from saying, “I’ll talk with him, but you need to make some changes too. If you want him to change, you need to be willing to meet him halfway.” Then, tell her what you think she needs to do differently.

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