Where there’s smoke...
By Amy Fendley
There is a bubble encapsulating the table, and extending upwards inside it is a chimney. Enclosed inside are two people who are visiting from Frankfurt, enjoying a cigarette. A waiter approaches the side of the bubble to take their orders through a window.
This may be a Jetsons’ rendition of how to go about protecting employees from the negative effects of smoking in the workplace, but it not far from the truth of what the Workers’ Compensation Board has in store for B.C. restaurants, bars and businesses Jan. 1, 2000.
The new regulations aim to limit employees’ exposure to tobacco smoke. But in the meantime, establishments must take reasonable action to protect their workers from second-hand smoke.
The requirements are part of a new package of standards called the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation and are just one outcome of what is being called the most comprehensive public consultation process on workplace health and safety ever conducted in North America.
But many people in the food and beverage industry don’t think there’s been enough consultation.
Last Monday a WRA-facilitated information session drew about 35 local business people to discuss what’s "coming down the pipe" Jan. 1.
The new WCB health and safety standards on second-hand smoke require employers at most B.C. businesses to protect workers by prohibiting smoking in the workplace or restricting smoking to a designated smoking area. The WCB definition of a designated smoking area is a "safe, outdoor location or separate, independently ventilated room that workers do not have to enter while working except in an emergency or until all ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) has been removed."
The WCB defines ETS as visible smoke. Smoke residue and odour don’t count for anything. The WCB also calls for the implementation of "reasonable and practical" controls which are defined as non-smoking seating areas, increased ventilation and filtration systems.
However, the kind of ventilation or air-exchange system WCB occupational hygiene officer Holger Heitland suggested is necessary to sufficiently clean air to allow for smoking and non-smoking tables to exist side-by-side does not currently exist on the market.
"The regulation does not ban smoking," says Heitland. "But is to provide other options such as prohibition, a designated smoking area such as a safe outdoor location or a room structurally separated from other work or break areas."
But to meet the regulations business owners will have to dig into their own pockets or the pockets of their associations for funding, or else prohibit smoking.
"It’s a noble cause that the WCB is working towards, but it’s an unworkable regulation and bad politics, and bad for most businesses," said Tim Crowhurst, a representative from the Hotel Association of Canada. "It’s a witch hunt and Whistler doesn’t need a black eye for its customers. ‘Smoking dollars’ are a significant portion of the international clientele."
That’s the point the WRA and some local businesses have tried to make, but so far they’ve had little impact.
The WCB regulations will extend outside, as well. Outdoor smoking areas, whether patio or butt-area, are to be clearly identified, and must provide some sort of a buffer against second-hand smoke re-entering the workplace, in order to meet the requirements of a ‘safe’ outdoor location. All restaurant patios must allow free movement of air, have a floor, a roof and no more than two sides.
Heitland clarifies: "This does not mean going out to smoke on a busy roadway where one could be struck by a car."
But whose responsibility will it be to clean up the butt-ugly mess left on public property by smokers? Neither Heitland, nor WCB spokesman Scott McCloy, had any answers.
A jurisdictional gap exists between public health authorities and the WCB’s focus. The WCB makes no bones about it; employees’ exposure to smoke is to be minimized. However, they also make it clear that they do not have any part to play in protecting the health of the general public.
"The WCB’s jurisdiction is strictly in the workplace," said Heitland. "We don’t determine how the employer figures out how to meet the regulation, we have no recommended solutions. The WCB are not proponents of any one system, and we do not regulate public health."
That response didn’t sit well with some people at the meeting. One member of the audience said the WCB regulations "are just skirting around the issue of a province-wide ban on smoking."
There is also a lot of work that needs to be done on the enforcement side of the regulations prior to Jan. 1. The WCB regulations will be complaint driven, and if an employer doesn’t comply there will be a toll-free number for employees to call. The WCB will be making inspections and non-complying businesses will be penalized a minimum of $1,500 if their facilities expose employees to smoke.
The non-smoking regulations will go so far as to regulate conditions in private homes, in the case of home care workers, cleaners and caterers who go into homes.
A memorandum of understanding has been reached by the WCB, the Ministry of Health and the Union of B.C. Municipalities which outlines the framework of a co-operative strategy. The WCB will administer requirements in non-public workplaces, the MOH and regional health authorities will help administer requirements in public workplaces and the UBCM will try to encourage local government support.
What would happen if a guest complained about smoke drifting into their hotel window from the patio below? The guest or hotel manager would be expected to complain to the MOH.
"We deal so much with international clientele and this is very much a North American thing," said Crowhurst.
"Last Friday in Victoria," Crowhurst continued, "a young male working in the restaurant industry lit a cigarette in the restaurant. When he didn’t comply with orders to put it out, saying he was using a legal product, the police came, arrested him and took him away in handcuffs.
"I’m glad to see Victoria has solved its prostitution and heroin situation," Crowhurst mocked.
Crowhurst said it would be more reasonable to give three or four more years of preparation time to the industry, instead of expecting everyone to comply when the clock strikes midnight Jan. 1.
"It’s not a regulation that’s going to be easy," says Crowhurst. "Chaos is all I can think of. Reason and ration have never entered into this debate."