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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Health & Safety: A tragic epidemic

by Mark Keelan

In spring 2003, an outbreak of SARS in Toronto and Vancouver prompted massive media attention. Visitors to hospital emergency rooms were met by masked healthcare workers and told to put on masks and to apply antibacterial hand lotion. Such preventative measures were seen as reasonable and necessary. Anything less would have been seen as negligence. The feared epidemic was averted. SARS claimed no lives in British Columbia.

During the same period as the SARS outbreak, an epidemic of a different type was raging virtually unnoticed across BC. In 2003, 170 workers died on the job in B.C., including nine young workers (aged 15 to 24). Reasonable and necessary preventative measures to curb the spread of this terrible epidemic were seen by many as cumbersome and as a threat to the economic growth of the province. As a result, British Columbia workers continue to be killed and injured on the job.

WorkSafeBC (the fancy new moniker of the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia) reports that from late May to early June 2005, more than 30 serious incidents occurred at workplaces. These incidents were responsible for three fatalities, six serious head injuries, the amputation of several fingers, and seven cases of single or multiple bone fractures. The amputation occurred on a young worker’s second day on the job.

Fatalities on the job in the teaching profession are rare. So, what do these tragic statistics have to do with BCTF members? The answer to the question is two-fold.

Lead by example
It is no secret that students, parents, and the general public watch members closely. While we have our share of critics, the majority of people with whom we come in contact look up to us for leadership and guidance.

Members have rights and should enforce them. We have the right to know the dangers in our workplaces. We have the right to participate in joint health and safety committees, inspections, and investigations. We have the right to refuse unsafe work when conditions are such that they may pose a risk to the health and safety of any person. And, we have the right to no discrimination when we insist that unsafe conditions be corrected immediately and when we refuse unsafe work.

Tools are available to assist members in asserting our rights. The BCTF provides excellent health and safety training for joint committee members and for school union reps. The BCTF Occupational Health and Safety Manual has recently been updated and copies are available in every local office and on the BCTF web site. The Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation can be found on the WorkSafeBC web site www.qp.gov.bc.ca/statreg/stat/W/96492_00.htm and regulation.healthandsafetycentre.org/s/Part1.asp.

When we stand up for our rights, people will notice. Students will follow our example. Visitors to schools will soon come to realize that unsafe behaviour and conditions are not acceptable. Our workplaces will be healthier and safer for us, for our students, and for their parents, and, thus, a culture of safety will begin to develop around us. Unhealthy and unsafe conditions in schools will join corporal punishment and on-site smoking as socially unacceptable in British Columbia schools.

Promote prevention
The abysmal statistics above indicate that employers are not doing an adequate job of training workers in health and safety procedures. Many of our students are part of the workforce and others will be soon. Some of them make up the statistics for young workers.

We have the opportunity to promote preventative measures in our classrooms in a variety of ways. Classes on current events could include discussions about workplace injuries and how they could have been prevented. Students could debate the pros and cons of prescriptive-based vs. performance-based health and safety regulations. Safety rules for labs and shops and other classrooms could be linked to occupational safety rules. There are several curricular areas where students could be taught the four basic occupational health and safety rights: the right to know, the right to participate, the right to refuse unsafe work, and the right to no discrimination.

There is an excellent resource available for teaching students the four basic rights. The BCTF participated in the development of the B.C. Federation of Labour’s, Young Worker Project. Teams of young workers take their dynamic presentations to secondary schools across the province. More than 13,000 students have been taught that they have rights in the workplace and have been given tips on how to use them. For more information, or to book a presentation, contact the BC Federation of Labour, 604-430-1421.

When members consistently assert the right to work in a healthy and safe environment and when students become workers who will not tolerate unsafe workplaces, the epidemic of worker death and injury will begin to be contained.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention. mkeelan@bctf.ca


WCB claims process

  1. As soon as practicable after the injury occurs or occupational disease is contracted, report to the employer. The worker must complete a "Workers’ Report of Injury or Occupational Disease to Employer" (Form 6A, online at www.worksafebc.com) and submit to the employer. In accordance with BCTF policy 13.D.08, forward a copy to the local teachers’ association office.
  2. Report the injury to the first-aid attendant, if applicable.
  3. Attend an appointment with an appropriate healthcare professional as soon as possible and advise them the injury/ disease is workplace related.
  4. Although there is one year in which to file a claim, the WCB Regulation specifies that as soon as is practicable after an injury occurs or an occupational disease is contracted it must be reported to the employer. Unnecessary delays in reporting have often resulted in denial of claims.
  5. As soon as a decision letter is received from WCB, contact Gail Montgomery, BCTF advocate, 604-871-1890 or 1-800-663-9163, gmontgomery@bctf.ca

Gail Montgomery is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for WCB claims.

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