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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Health and safety: Prevention pays

by Maureen L. MacDonald

Things my mother taught me:
• Wash your hands.
• Look before you leap.
• Be careful.
• Look both ways before you cross the street.
• Watch your step.
• Always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident.

Thanks for the good advice, Mom. I didn’t realize when I was growing up that you are a health and safety expert!

Prevention is the key
I deal with unsafe and unhealthy school conditions with a view to preventing them from occurring again.

If injuries don’t happen, the personal and the monetary savings are enormous.

Make a mental list of your on-the-job injuries. In my 35-year career, I have racked up a few myself. I sprained my ankle on the old, warped school floor. I had to take a day off. I injured my arm trying to avoid falling onto a six-year-old child who’d run in front of me. I had to go to the hospital in the middle of the day for x-rays. I slipped and fell in wet hallways several times. I injured my pride and got my clothes dirty. I tripped over an extension cord that trailed from my filmstrip projector to the faraway outlet. I had many papercuts, one of which got infected. When a student ran by and knocked into me, I fell down the stairs and broke the heel off my shoe. I got tennis elbow from typing at my ergonomically bad computer desk and had to go to physiotherapy. I had a traumatic, heart-stopping near miss when a student wrenched a fire extinguisher off the wall and threw it at the teacher I was talking to. It missed her, too. No life-threatening injuries. For that I consider myself lucky.

Which of the incidents were preventable? Nearly all, right? Predictable and preventable.

I would prefer to have prevented the pain, the bruises, the Band-Aids, the paperwork, the lost time, and the embarrassment of those falls. The school board would like to have prevented the expense of having other staff members look after me, filling out the accident report forms, and my occasional time off work for recuperation.

It was simple to predict the slips and falls. It was a no-brainer to predict the tripping hazard. It is easy to see why students need to understand the rule that prohibits them from running and throwing things in the halls and stairwells. Teach safety. Learn from my mistakes.

The good old JOH&S Committee
Do you grumble about conditions? Sure, it’s human nature. Do you then report through the right channels? Please do. That’s what makes change happen.

Give your classroom and surrounding space a quick inspection every day. Tell your reps on the school’s Joint Occupational Health & Safety Committee of any problems. (If union members on your staff don’t elect their own, the principal can and will appoint the reps.) The committee will resolve any problems within its power and recommend in writing to the school board the solutions to any problems that need additional help or resources. The employer must fix the problem within 21 days or report in writing why that cannot be done. If that happens, call your local president for advice on the next step to take. Your president will probably call me, and we’ll devise a plan.

The Workers’ Compensation Board is an insurance plan. If there are lots of injuries, the employer’s rate goes up. If the employer pays attention to the details and the incidents are avoided, the rate goes down. We can all think of hazards just waiting to become incidents. And, with prevention in mind, we can all tell our representatives on the school JOH&S Committee about them. The money saved on preventable incidents could well be spent on restoring things we used to have by virtue of our collective agreements. That’s more proof of the interconnectedness of everything to everything else!

Be vocal in your local
When your local rep assembly or general meeting is discussing school concerns, talk about health and safety conditions along with the shortage of just about everything, the underfunding of the public education system, and the need to elect a government that cares. Remember, unions were originally formed to protect the health and safety of workers. That’s still why they exist.

Recent incidents
Here are just a few conditions that have been reported to me in the first two weeks of September: dirty carpets, desk tops, counters, classrooms, cupboards, and supply rooms, electrical cords on floors, leaky fountain with puddles on the floor around it, leaky roof caused the ruin of three boxes of teacher-made materials, mouldy patches visible on walls and ceilings, no hot water, plugged toilets, and violence by students.

The good old JOH&S Committee could recommend solutions to most of these conditions in a heartbeat. One obvious help would be for each school to have a day-shift custodian who could talk to teachers on the job and fix small problems immediately.

All the members of all the JOH&S Committees in the province receive, by law, eight hours of educational leave for training annually, paid by the employer. When is it happening in your district?

They’ll hate me if I complain!
Balderdash! Anyone who thinks you should put up with an unsafe or unhealthy condition isn’t thinking clearly. They’ll thank you eventually. And I’ll thank you right now. Call me.

Pin this recently seen sign to your shoulder—NOTICE: Asking me to overlook a simple safety violation would be asking me to compromise my entire attitude toward the value of your life.

Do the arithmetic. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You may quote me on that. Fix a leaky fountain, buy a slip mat, remove the hazard, and WASH YOUR HANDS!"

Maureen MacDonald is the prevention officer in the BCTF health and safety department.

To add your name to the BCTF Occupational Health and Safety e-mail list please contact Whitney Burgess at wburgess@bctf.ca.

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