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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

Health and safety: Mount Baker disaster need not be repeated

by Mark Keelan

It is hard to decide which is more disturbing. Is it that the number of Mount Baker Secondary School teachers who are ill and have tested high for heavy metals, including mercury, is up to 13 and climbing? Or is it that the Southeast Kootenay School District appears to have such disregard for the health and safety of their staff and students?

In her article, on page 20 of this issue of Teacher, Nancy Knickerbocker does a wonderful job of highlighting the struggles faced by the teachers who are ill. So let us look at the school district’s health and safety record.

In April 2001, the WCB conducted a comprehensive inspection of Mount Baker Secondary School as part of a district-wide audit. Coincidentally, the inspection took place exactly in the middle of a four-and-a-half month period where staff and students were unknowingly exposed to an open container of mercury in a box that had been brought to the physics lab from the basement. Some of the inspector’s observations include:

  • Training for health and safety committee members is not adequate.
  • Inspections are not effective at identifying health and safety issues.
  • preventative maintenance and assessment of the ventilation system is not adequate.
  • There are no blood borne pathogens procedures.
  • Instruments containing mercury were observed without the benefit of spill kit or procedures.
  • There is a lack of WHMIS education and training.

The district neglected to follow through on many of their obligations and delayed implementation of others. Because of their recalcitrance, in October 2004, the WCB imposed a $15,000 administrative penalty on the district. WCB summarized the reasons for the penalty:

  1. The district violated the same section of Part 3 of the Act or the Regulation on more than one occasion.
  2. The district violated different sections of Part 3 of the Act or the Regulation on more than one occasion where the number of violations indicated a general lack of commitment to compliance.
  3. The district failed to comply with a previous order within a reasonable time.
  4. The board [Workers’ Compensation Board] considers that the circumstances warrant an administrative penalty.
  5. The board considers that an administrative penalty is necessary to motivate both the employer receiving the penalty and other employers to comply with the Act and Regulation.
  6. The district failed to exercise due diligence to prevent the violation to which the penalty relates.

Lessons can be learned from the ongoing tragedy in Cranbrook. Clearly the administrative penalty imposed on the Southeast Kootenay School District was meant, in part, to be an encouragement to other employers to comply with the law. BCTF members have a role to play. We must, if necessary, educate our employers. We must exercise our health and safety rights, and we must hold employers accountable by insisting that they comply with the Workers Compensation Act.

The Workers Compensation Act Section 115, requires that employers ensure the health and safety of all their employees and of all other workers present at their workplaces. Sections 125–140 outline the rights and responsibilities of joint health and safety committees. Rights include:

  • Management members cannot outnumber worker members (s.127).
  • The unions decide who the worker members will be (s.128).
  • Committees make recommendations to the employer about health and safety matters, participate in investigations and inspections, and ensure that investigations and inspections are carried out (s.130).
  • Committees make their own rules of procedure (s.131).
  • The employer must respond to committee recommendations, and if the committee is not satisfied with the response, it may seek assistance from the WCB (s.133).

As with all other rights, health and safety rights are useless to workers unless they are enforced. Members must insist that good, functioning joint committees are present in our workplaces. Committee members must understand their role, function, and rights, and must not allow themselves to be co-opted by the employer. They must insist on being part of inspections and investigations. They must make recommendations to the employer regarding health and safety in the workplace and, if the employer refuses to implement the recommendations, must not hesitate to contact the WCB.

Teachers from Mount Baker Secondary School in Cranbrook would encourage their colleagues to be squeaky wheels when it comes to advocating for health and safety. At the same time they would advise caution—beware of toxic grease.

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


WCB claims and occupational disease

The cause of a disease, by its nature, is often more difficult to determine than a personal injury. Determining the extent to which a worker’s employment played a role in producing the disease becomes a critical issue.

There are many factors used to determine compensation entitlement under the Workers’ Compensation Act. In addition there are policies respecting this in the Rehabilitation Services and Claims Manual. It is a complex issue.

If you have reason to believe that you have contracted an occupational disease in the course of your employment, please contact: Gail Montgomery, BCTF WCB Advocate, direct line 604-871-1890, toll free 1-800-663-9163 (local 1890), gmontgomery@bctf.ca.

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