Smoking ban seems dousedWASHINGTON -- The Office of...

Newswatch . . . on federal workers

April 10, 1991|By Kate McKenna | Kate McKenna,States News Service

WASHINGTON — Smoking ban seems doused

WASHINGTON -- The Office of Management and Budget can't comment officially, and the Department of Health and Human Services Department won't. But a controversial move to ban all smoking by millions of federal employees may have been temporarily snuffed.

Some say that OMB will decide on the smoking ban this week, while others say that OMB already rejected the proposal as being too broad.

Subject to an Executive Order drafted by HHS Secretary Louis H. Sullivan -- and submitted for White House approval weeks ago -- the proposal would prohibit pipes, cigarettes and cigars in all executive branch offices. The plan would widen a previous rule that eliminated smoking in all but designated smoking areas.

"The health risks of smoking and exposure to smoke are clearly documented by reports of the Surgeon General of the United States," reads one version of the proposed order, "and the simple separation of smokers and non-smokers within the same air space may reduce, but does not eliminate, the exposure of non-smokers to environmental tobacco smoke."

Although the ban would have affected most federal workers except employees in the legislative and judicial branches -- from court officers to Capitol Hill police. Executive orders do not extend to the other two branches of government.

Adding to the confusion was a special exemption inserted into the order for uniformed members of the military, although other employees of the Defense Department would have been prohibited from smoking.

The vision of federal offices where smoking is strictly forbidden for some workers while permitted for others proved troublesome. And this focus on tobacco hazards without similar emphasis on other indoor air-quality issues also seemed puzzling to some.

"If you're trying to improve the quality of air, then you've got to see the whole picture -- asbestos in older buildings and other sick-building syndrome problems," said Diane S. Witiak, spokesman for the 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees.

Witiak was also dubious of a plan that had federal workers and military employees working side by side, but with some permitted to smoke and others banned from doing so.

"If the whole goal is to provide a better, healthier indoor environment, then what's the point of having exemptions?" said Witiak.

Although Internal Revenue Service officials can't explain why, the agency's Internal Security Division has recorded a conspicuous drop in the number of harassments, assaults and threats made against revenue officers and other employees in recent years.

In its 1991 budget report, the Senate Committee on Appropriations noted an increasingly higher number of threats, assaults, and incidents of harassments affecting IRS employees, adding that the problem undermines employee morale and productivity.

The committee found the problem sufficiently worrisome to require that the IRS document the numbers of such incidents that agency employees face annually. Although the first such annual report was to be submitted to the Appropriations Committee by Feb. 15, it has still not been completed.

Advance figures, however, show a sharp drop in such incidents in 1990 over the previous recorded 12-month period. And, when matched with harassment data from other years, the figures show a steady decline in work-related hassles for IRS employees nationwide.

IRS Internal Security Division officials had long noted an average of 900 annual cases of assaults, threats and harassments of IRS employees for a number of years.

For example, there were 942 cases reported in fiscal 1988 and 925 cases in 1989.

According to official IRS definitions, a threat may be oral, written or made by telephone. Harassments can range from anonymous phone calls to taxpayers sending unsolicited subscriptions to an IRS agent's home.

Labor looking for a lift:

The Labor Department has announced a May 31 deadline for nominations to the 1991 LIFT (Labor Investing for Tomorrow) Awards Program.

Begun last year, the awards program is part of the overall Labor Department initiative to enhance the future work force and recognize creative solutions to the current work force crisis. The LIFT awards recognize exemplary efforts on the part of employers, unions, employee groups, educational organizations, and communities.

Sixteen organizations were recognized by the LIFT program last year.

Official copies of the nomination form may be obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Room S-2114, Frances Perkins Building, 200 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20210.

The final number of awards will depend on the number and quality of nominations.

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