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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 3, November/December 2005

Health and safety: We are not hockey players

by Mark Keelan

Football players and hockey players get paid to be hit. Police officers and soldiers are trained to put themselves in harm’s way. For these people, the risk of violence is part of the job.

But why are so many teachers willing to accept that being punched, kicked, scratched, and bitten is simply part of the job? There are many answers: it is embarrassing to admit to being assaulted by a 5-year-old, the student couldn’t help it, the teacher shouldn’t have been in the way, the student’s friends might retaliate, etc.

Sometimes lack of support from supervisors compounds the problem. A pregnant teacher reported that, in the half-hour period between her special education assistant’s departure and the end of the school day, one of her Grade 3 students routinely punched her in the stomach. Her principal’s response was that maybe he should buy her some hockey pads. Another teacher who suffered bruises, bites, and scratches on her arms was issued a pair of falconer’s gloves. When she argued that the solution was not adequate, the district agreed. It purchased a pair of gloves for the special education assistant as well.

Teachers must not be subjected to acts of violence! Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace. If they cannot provide a completely violence-free workplace, they must ensure there are policies and procedures in place to minimize the risk of violence.

The BCTF Occupational Health and Safety Manual is an excellent source of information. It includes the following information for dealing with potential violence in schools:

"OH&SR [Occupational Health and Safety Regulation] 4.28 requires the employer to perform a risk assessment at all workplaces in which a risk of injury to workers may be present. Given the experience of members in BC and elsewhere, BCTF believes that all places where our members work are workplaces in which violence might occur. BCTF also believes that violence can be prevented.

"Some school boards have refused to perform a risk assessment of individual workplaces, stating that their obligation is merely to perform a district risk assessment. This is not correct. The word "workplace" is deliberately used in this part. The risk assessment is to consider previous experience in the workplace, occupational experience in similar workplaces, and the location and circumstances in which work will take place. This assessment should be done with the assistance of the joint committee and must include input from all staff in order to be meaningful.

"It is the employer’s responsibility to conduct a risk assessment and to eliminate violence in the workplace. However, many of the steps can be conducted by the union and used as evidence with the employer and WCB of the potential for violence in the workplace. A risk assessment should be done by the supervisor of the school, in co-operation with the joint committee. However, lack of leadership or co-operation should not stop members from proceeding. Call a WCB officer if the supervisor is not in compliance with the regulation. Anyone can phone anonymously if afraid of retaliation.

"As previously stated, given that the potential for violence exists at all BCTF workplaces, risk assessments should be conducted at every workplace. Additionally, risk assessments should be conducted as a baseline, as part of an accident/ incident investigation, at the start of a new operation/ program/school, or when a significant change occurs, e.g., addition or deletion of grades/ programs, major renovations."

The BCTF Health and Safety Manual, which is available online at bctf.ca/education/health/OhandS-Manual, includes a step-by-step summary of how to conduct a risk assessment and sample forms. Keep in mind, however, that it is not enough to just conduct a risk assessment. Information from the assessment must be used to create policies and procedures to eliminate, or at the very least, minimize the risk of violence.

A number of strategies should be considered when deciding which policies and procedures to implement. In some school districts, a student who arrives to register at a new school is sent home until someone can contact the student’s previous school to determine if the student or the student’s parent or guardian might present a risk to staff or other students. Students with behavioural problems and students with special needs who are violent should have individual safety plans that are created in consultation with the teachers who work with the students. The safety plans must be monitored and updated as necessary. These are just two of the many options available. All policies must be consistent with workers’ right to know a person’s history of violent behaviour.

When teachers join the ranks of football and hockey players as workers who get paid to be hit, perhaps we will also be able to command multimillion dollar salaries. In the meantime, we must insist that employers fulfill their obligations to provide a workplace free from violence.

WCB claims process
If you are injured as a result of a violent work-related incident, or experience any other occupational injury or disease, click on bctf.ca/education/health/wcb/ClaimsProcess.pdf to find out more about the WCB claims process. For more information about WCB, contact Gail Montgomery, BCTF WCB Advocate, 604-871-1890, 1-800-663-9163 local 1890, gmontgomery@bctf.ca.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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