Smoking and constructive dismissal – do they belong in one sentence?

By Johanette Rheeder 

Ever met the chain smoker who, notwithstanding the hints, complaints and frowns, continues to smoke in his office or open areas in the work place, clearly in defiance of the law and the employer’s smoking policy? Most employers and employees are aware of the fact that smoking in public areas, therefore also the workplace, are regulated in South Africa by way of legislation, the Tobacco Products Control Act 83 of 1993. Therefore, any policy the employer has with regard to regulating smoking at the workplace, must fall within the legislative framework. This framework is contained in notice GNR975 of GG 21610 of 19 September 2000. In terms of item 6, an employer must ensure that no person smokes anywhere other than in the designated smoking area in that work place. Item 7 requires that an employer must ensure that employees who do not want to be exposed to tobacco smoke are protected from tobacco smoke in that workplace and employees may object to tobacco smoke in the workplace without retaliation of any kind. An employer, may totally prohibit smoking at its work place, therefore, as far as our law stands, there is no right to smoke at the workplace.

At this stage you may wonder what does smoking at the workplace have to do with constructive dismissal, if at all?

There are not many cases about smoking in the workplace recorded. An interesting one is that of Naude and Stealth Marine (2004) 13 MEIBC 6.13.3, in the sense that smoking in the workplace became a ground for constructive dismissal. The applicant had respiratory problems and previous serious health conditions, which included asthma attacks as a result of smoking and she had an allergy to cigarette smoke.

The employer’s premises had no designated smoking areas. The reception area was situated downstairs and the administrative offices were situated upstairs. The factory was outside. Staff smoked in the corridors, in the reception area and in their offices upstairs. Smoke often trickled down from the upstairs offices, into the reception area.

Within two weeks of commencing employment the applicant developed a reaction to the cigarette smoke and got sick. The applicant had a tight chest and difficulty breathing and developed nausea, headaches and light-headedness. She complained about the smoking to her boss and informed the employer about her allergy and the fact that she would develop serious health problems if staff did not stop smoking inside the building. Her supervisor said she would address the problem, but the smoking in open areas persisted. To make matters worse, her superior promised to ask the staff to stop smoking inside the premises, but he himself continued to smoke inside. The staff also continued to smoke inside the building. The applicant complained to her direct supervisor every day and on 29 April the applicant left early, as she could not tolerate the smoke any more. When she returned on the 30th, four people were again smoking inside the building. The applicant advised her boss that she had to leave, as she was unable to continue to work under the circumstances.

The commissioner found that, in terms of the Tobacco Products Control Act 83 of 1993 smoking is not allowed in offices or in public areas in workplaces. Smoking is only allowed in designated areas and it is the duty of an employer to ensure that the Act is complied with. On the applicant’s version the respondent failed to implement antismoking legislation in the workplace. The employer’s actions were therefore unlawful in allowing employees to smoke inside the administration building. It is important to note that the applicant in this case was not the average, healthy, non-smoking employee who was indignant at the fact that her employer was not complying with antismoking legislation. The applicant was previously a heavy smoker and had developed serious respiratory problems and an allergy to cigarette smoke as a result of her habit. The applicant developed debilitating physical symptoms when exposed to cigarette smoke. On the evidence before the commissioner, the respondent created an intolerable working environment for the applicant. The applicant was unable to be productive.

In the view of the commissioner, the applicant has proved that she was dismissed and that the respondent created an intolerable situation at the workplace that forced her to resign.