Workplace bans force smokers on to street: Employers have moved ahead of EC legislation to protect staff from the risks of passive smoking. Martin Whitfield reports

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THE SMALL pile of cigarette ends tells the story. Three or four people stand idly on the pavement, smoking.

Across the country, huddles of such outcasts can be seen in every town as a wave of workplace smoking bans takes effect.

'I have tried to give up but I have been smoking for 20 years,' Susan, a Midland Bank worker, says as she lights up outside the bank's headquarters in the City of London. 'I know it's a filthy habit and I would not like it next to me if I was a non- smoker, but I think we should have a room somewhere.'

She is joined by three colleagues from a department where 6 out of 10 workers are smokers. There are visible signs that they are not the first that day to step outside the building for a smoke.

'I thought I would smoke less but when I get home I smoke like crazy,' another woman says.

The Midland is one of a large number of employers who have been worried by the threat of legal action over passive smoking. It introduced a complete smoking ban for its 50,000 staff on 5 May and hopes to achieve a cleaner, healthier and safer working environment.

More than half of employers have some form of restriction on smoking at work, with a large number taking the Midland approach and banning it altogether. Policies are most commonly initiated by workers themselves.

The bank was open about its reason for refusing to provide smoking areas when the policy was introduced after wide consultation and a staff survey showing 87 per cent in favour of tough controls.

'In order to control passive smoking and its effects, separate ventilated areas would need to be provided. The cost associated with creating such areas is significant and cannot be justified given the results of the staff attitude survey. Employees will be at liberty to take any recognised breaks, lunch breaks etc outside the building if they wish to smoke,' it said.

Those who persistently breach the regulations face disciplinary action. Most smokers wait for breaks and then desert the building for cafes and pubs. Those who resort to the open air feel persecuted but, like Susan, understand why non-smokers object to people smoking around them.

Also in the City, on the pavement outside P & P Training Services, near Liverpool Street station, a group is taking a smoking break. Although they are on a training course, they are no strangers to being forced on to the streets.

'I work for British Telecom. We can smoke in the snack bar but if that's closed I go to the loo or make a trip outside,' one said.

Ash, the anti-smoking charity, supports restrictions but advises employers to provide specially designated smoking areas. It has been receiving 100 requests a month from employers seeking information on how to introduce smoking restrictions.

According to Ash, British employers are already ahead of a European directive that says separate restrooms for smokers and non-smokers must be introduced by 1996, or smoking must be banned altogether.

Industrial Relations Services, a specialist organisation looking at conditions at work, sees the trend against smoking continuing. All reviews of smoking policies have increased restrictions, it says.

(Photograph omitted)