Strange, But True…

December 31, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Plan sponsors know all too well the trials and travails of the workplace - little wonder that "War Stories" is one of our most popular features.
By PS

Still, as we enter 2008, it seems appropriate to stop for a quick look back at some of the Odd Workplace Stories of 2007.

There was the case where a California jury awarded $45,000 to a woman who said she was fired for bringing her dog to work as a way to ease her anxiety and depression. Chris Storm argued in her lawsuit that her employer had retaliated against her because she asked to keep her dog in her office. For its part, the employer testified that the dog was not properly house trained – and that the “result” created an office hazard (see California Jury Finds Retaliation in Comfort Animal Case ).

Consider the case of Natalie Koehler, who severed tendons in her foot and suffered nerve damage – after dropping a coffee cup on it at work. She lost a legal battle over whether she was improperly denied accident insurance when U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin noted that Koehler apparently sustained the injury to her left foot in November 1990 – but waited fourteen years to bring the suit (see Judge Upholds Coffee Cup Accident Benefits Denial ).

There was the predicament of Joyce Cohen, a former Starbucks server with an ear ailment – who filed a $4 million disability discrimination lawsuit against the coffee chain retailer over allegations the Manhattan shop where she worked was too noisy. Cohen claimed that design changes to the coffee shop, like removing the carpeting and draperies and installing “loud, buzzing” ovens produced a racket that was intolerable for her (see Starbucks Server Sues over Coffee Shop Racket ).

Football is a rough profession. Still, middle linebacker Odell Thurman of the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Bucs cornerback Torrie Cox claimed that their suspension by the National Football League for substance abuse constituted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act - because alcoholism is a disability (see Suspended NFL Players Claim Discrimination ).

Police work can also be dangerous, but Honolulu police dispatcher Sally Crowder suffered a detached retina after she was hit in the eye by a ball thrown by another emergency operator during a "game" played while at work. According to the complaint, some of the game players "would attempt to throw the ball with enough force to make the co-worker who was struck by the ball verbally express pain," and Crowder was "repeatedly" struck in the back of the head and both eyes. A co-worker asked a supervisor to stop the goings-on, but the supervisor declined saying the "game was therapeutic," Crowder alleged (see Honolulu Police Dispatcher Sues over Eye Injury ).

Stress Tests

The workplace is certainly stressful - and job stress is increasingly on everyone's mind. But a study from colleagues at the Royal Free and University College London Medical School that found the more job strain men and women reported, the more likely they were to become….obese (see Job Stress Puts on Pounds ).

Or perhaps it's just bad eating habits. A study by Nationwide Better Health indicated that employees generally believe they are making healthy choices at work and remaining active during the day, but their actions show differently. Almost three-quarters of employees surveyed (72%) eat an unhealthy snack at work at least once a week and a little more than a quarter (27%) eat an unhealthy snack three or more times a week. More than one-third of employees (34%) said their jobs require them to stay put behind their desk most of the day (see Workplaces are a Danger to Healthy Eating Habits and Behavior ).

Obesity concerns notwithstanding, many of us work through lunch. But consider the case of a U.S. Postal Service employee who claimed that his employer - by refusing to allow him to work during his lunch break - violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as state anti-discrimination laws. The employee said being able to stay mobile eased the symptoms of his "severe and painful" arthritic condition (see Disabled USPS Employee Sues Over Denial of Working Lunch Break ).

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (see Let Employees Curse at Work, &@*#! ) claim to have a solution to job stress - noting that allowing employees to swear at work may actually have a positive impact; acting as a way to reinforce solidarity among staff and enabling them to express their feelings (but obviously ignoring the implications of word choice on resulting hostile environment lawsuits - not to mention the additional stress for HR).

Even the least germaphobic among us had to be grossed out (as we are every year) by the ubiquitous annual study commissioned by the Clorox Co. that found the average office desktop has 400 times more bacteria than the average office toilet seat (whatever constitutes an "average" toilet seat). See Women's Office Space Carry More Germs than Men's .

Other than potential obesity and germs, 2007 workplace hazards also included - dancing coworkers. Lacey Hindman was at an after-work gathering with a group of co-workers when one of them allegedly grabbed her by the forearms and, without warning, flipped her into the air, "jitterbug-style." She subsequently crashed headfirst into the wood floor and suffered a fractured skull (see Co-Worker Sued for "Negligent Dancing" ).

Then there was the case of a Canadian plasterer who contracted the West Nile virus on the job - and was determined to be entitled to benefits from his workplace group accident insurance policy. The three-member appellate panel said the employee's case met the requirements for the triggering event to be legally considered an accident since, "It was an unforeseen, unexpected event that was caused by an external source - a mosquito …" (see Canadian Plasterer Wins Insurance Benefits Appeal ).

Of course, some workers have their own ways to relieve job stress. A survey of about 5,700 employees by CareerBuilder.com revealed 45% of workers admitted to falling asleep on the job, 39% said they have kissed a coworker, and 21% said they had consumed alcoholic beverages during working hours (see Falling Asleep Ranks as Most Common Workplace Taboo ).

We all need a break from time to time, and a second CareerBuilder survey found that 49% of workers take a coffee break at least once each day, while nearly a third do so at least two times each workday. But that survey also found that people are taking the opportunity of that break to do a lot of other unusual things, including: proposing marriage, judging a "Best Legs" contest, shrink wrapping a co-worker's new car, chasing a weasel (ostensibly not a co-worker), participating in a burping contest, conducting a fast re-enactment of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" - - - and walking a new-born turkey around the building (see Coffee Breaks Help Get Through the Day ).

- Rebecca Moore/Nevin Adams

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