I work at a hospital as an office clerk. We currently have an interim director. There are many changes happening in our department, which has been stressful, but I’ve been “rolling with the punches.” Last week our director had a meeting in which he stated that we are not allowed to have water to drink at our check-in reception area per hospital policy. This has never been a rule in the past. While this probably would not be an issue normally, I take certain medications that require me to drink plenty of water. I went to see my doctor and got a note saying that I could have water at my desk. Now I’m worried that if I give my director the note, I will be on his “bad side” or be labeled a troublemaker. What should I do?
— Not a Camel, Iowa
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), all workplaces must provide drinkable water to employees, but that doesn’t mean that workers have a right to drink water at their desk.
While requirements for breaks while working to eat lunch, use the restroom, etc. vary state by state—from “no breaks for you” (which, unfortunately, is the case in Iowa) to minimum standards such as a 30-minute meal break and paid rest periods in some states—your health condition could offer you additional protection. Your health condition may be serious enough to be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and if so, your employer may be required to provide you with a reasonable accommodation to allow you to perform your job. Health conditions that constitute a “disability” under the ADA and the type of accommodations that are “reasonable” are determined on a case-by-case basis, but more information can be found here.
Even with protections in place for individuals who have health conditions, you’re smart to consider how your employer will react to you. The first thing to consider is whether to involve another co-worker. Is there anyone else with similar needs or concerns about access to drinking water, breaks or the like? If so, try to meet with him or her first and see if he or she will agree to go with you when you talk with your boss. A larger group would be even better. That way, it’s not just about you, but about the quality of everyone’s workplace. Not only are you less likely to be singled out, but the law provides additional protections from retaliation when two or more employees join together. This is called “protected concerted activity.”
Still, your approach matters. With another co-worker or in a group, strike a collaborative tone when speaking to your director. You could say that you understand what the rule is, but that a couple of you—or many of you—feel like the workplace would be better for everyone if you knew that when it was necessary, as in your situation, you could expect some flexibility to go to the water fountain, break area or restroom to take medication or address personal needs.
Getting together with your co-workers isn’t just about protecting yourself from retaliation. It’s also how you can shape your workplace to be happier and healthier for everyone who works there. I’m for raising the bar for everyone. Don’t you think we should set our sights higher than just meeting the minimum standards of the ADA?
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