Ecology Workers Take on Hazardous Lighting

When a harsh, disruptive lighting change gave employees watery eyes and headaches, WFSE Local 872 members took action. Their collective voices and strategy convinced management to do the right thing and correct the problem.

“The agency went to LED lighting, which was a good thing,” said Alan Bogner, Brownfields Manager and Vice President of WFSE Local 872. “But the lighting that they put in came with a pretty wide range of brightness level, and they unfortunately set the level at high, at maximum, throughout the entire building. It was just too much. It was way too bright.”

People who have never had to work under an exaggeratedly bright LED light may not understand the seriousness of the working conditions Ecology employees were dealing with.

LED lighting can carry serious health risks, particularly high intensity, “blue” light.

According to a study by a French health authority, LED lights, which are richer in blue light than traditional light sources, can have negative effects on the retina, as well as on circadian rhythms and sleep. Exposure from street lamps, vehicle lights, and headlamps were cited as harmful sources of blue light.

“My eyes were constantly watering, I was getting headaches. It was awful,” said Bogner.

Working full time under such lights, workers in the three-story Ecology building complained of eye pain and headaches. It was impossible to concentrate.

“This light was incredibly white, and was more like something you’d put in a parking garage or a shop facility, something more industrial,” said Jade Monroe, President of Local 872 and an Environmental Specialist 3.

“We understood it was for environmental friendliness,” she continued. “But due to the LED lights that they chose and the lumens that were across the building, it was uncomfortable on every floor.”

Members and nonmembers immediately sprang to action. Some put up orange surveying flags in their cubicles as a sign of protest. Others resorted to shielding their eyes by placing umbrellas or large plastic leaves in their cubicles. 

Some inquired about getting a reasonable accommodation to reduce the light level in their workspace, but were told they’d need a doctor’s approval.

“For folks who needed a reasonable accommodation, they would have to go get a doctor’s note,” said Bogner. “Well, there’s cost associated with that, sometimes upwards of $50 for copay just to go see the doctor. Our argument was, why do I need a doctor’s note to get my lighting turned down to a normal, acceptable level?”

Members took their objections to the Union Management Communications Committee table, but their concerns were brushed away.

“That’s when we drafted the letter to management saying, ’As Local 872, we need to work on this cooperatively.’,” said Monroe.

Monroe also created cubicle signs for employees to demonstrate unity and show management how widespread the discomfort was. One side read “Help staff shine bright, no doctor’s note for light.” The other side proclaimed “Prevent the dimming morale: Help reduce barriers to a safe and equitable working environment.”

“Those spread like wildfire throughout the building,” said Monroe. “It was a unifying thing that happened really fast.” 

Management responded. They initiated a survey and asked workers to test areas with several different levels of lighting. 

In the end, a reduction to 75% of the initial brightness was settled upon, and employees were granted the ability to lower their area’s lighting to 25% without a doctor’s note, just by asking.

“It was my first time getting involved with a campaign from start to finish and it was clear that it really meant something to the people in the building,” said Monroe. 

“This is definitely a post Janus campaign, and I think this was a unifier for members and nonmembers, or future members,” she said. “I’ve been told from management in addition to nonmembers that it was really great to see the union picking up this issue. It’s a way for them to feel valued through their union, in addition to solving a legitimate issue.”

Bogner concurs that collective action brought folks together at Ecology.

“The signs only worked because of the collective action,” he said. “Just one sign up is not going to do anything, but when you have half the agency banding together with signage, it’s very powerful.”