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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

Health and safety: What's that you say?

by Maureen L. MacDonald

Universal truth: Good acoustics enhance all students’ ability to learn.

Unfortunate truth: Poor acoustics abound in schools.

Is anybody listening?
Hard-of-hearing students learn better in classrooms that have good acoustics. All students learn better, and all teachers teach better in classrooms with good acoustics. The following specific student populations receive great benefit: profoundly deaf, hard of hearing (including children with recurring ear infections), central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), learning disabilities, developmental delays, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), and second-language learners.

Students with special needs have IEPs that outline plans to optimize their learning. Are acoustical engineers on the planning teams? Who, if anyone, is recommending how to eliminate the noise problems by installing sound-absorbing walls or ceilings or by using portable or built-in sound-field systems?

School planners are late to learn the importance of acoustics. Schools often have no acoustical design. There are no provincial standards for school acoustics. It is common to have poor acoustical environments, with excessive noise and reverberation. This is detrimental to communication between teachers and students, to learning and language development, and to the health and well-being of teachers. This situation is not confined to old schools. The newest schools, built on the cheap, can be the worst. Hard surfaces, sloped ceilings, and industrial steel beams absorb no sounds.

What makes the little red schoolhouse "green"?
There is a "green school" movement that sounds appealing at first. However, it includes the notion that natural ventilation will occur if the windows open and the walls between the classrooms do not reach all the way to the ceiling. If I remember my elementary school science lessons correctly, when the air flows over the walls, the sound goes with it. Will you volunteer to teach next to the music room or the metalwork shop or the Kindergarten?

When there is too much noise, teachers usually raise their voices. Students need to hear over the bothersome heating/ ventilating/air conditioning (HVAC) system, the PE class outside the window, and the traffic on the busy street a few metres away. Teachers speak up despite the fact that loud does not mean clear. Vowels mask the high frequency sounds such as th, sh and ch. Not all the students understand the message. Learning suffers. The teacher’s voice suffers.

We teachers depend on our voices as professional tools, but unlike singers and actors, we are not trained to use them effectively. Many of us simply accept sore throats and loss of vocal power as occupational hazards. Drinking lots of water and using non-verbal signals will help save the voice, but speech therapy or medical treatment may also be needed.

Teachers’ voices are at risk
WCB statistics show that the incidence of voice dysfunction among teachers is on the rise. Teachers are five times more likely than the general population to have voice problems. According to Dr. Linda Rammage, program director, half the patients at the Provincial Voice Care Resource Program at Vancouver General Hospital are teachers. Voice problems among teachers represent a rising cause of teacher illness, use of sick leave, stress, and WCB claims. Many of the same teachers have concerns about indoor-air quality. In extreme cases, teachers have been forced to cut short their careers.

Make a noise
The Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee at each worksite is there to receive information about health and safety hazards, including noise levels and voice dysfunction. The committee will recommend solutions to problems. If the problems cannot be resolved at the school level, they will be referred to the district level. The district must respond to recommendations within 21 days. You’ve heard me sing this song before! It’s a favourite of mine.

Whether a teacher’s voice dysfunction is caused by the working conditions or by a separate medical condition, the employer has a duty to accommodate the worker. File a WCB claim. See your doctor. Keep a written record of events. Don’t give up. Call your local president for help.

Buying basic portable sound-field systems, when required, for about $1000 each, would save money for school boards, the WCB, and the healthcare system. At the same time, teachers and students would benefit. There would be no losers.

SNAG, the ad hoc School Noise Action Group on which I represent the BCTF, is actively attempting to change the way schools and classrooms are designed. SNAG is setting up a research program in preschool (Berwick), elementary and secondary (Vancouver), and post-secondary (UBC) classrooms. Preliminary local studies indicate that noise levels only rarely and for short periods go down to ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards, and teachers talk much louder than was previously thought.

Sound advice
Tell your school trustees and your MLAs to recognize expertise. If 42,000 BCTF experts tell them that school acoustics need upgrading, they’ll have to listen.

Recommend to your local that it get involved in planning good acoustics for new schools, and for renovations of existing acoustically inferior schools.

This is the last in a series of articles I have written as the prevention officer in the Health and Safety Department. My term appointment to the BCTF staff ends on February 11. I’ll become a teacher-librarian at the brand new Elsie Roy Elementary School, in Vancouver’s Yaletown, on February 14. If you wish, you can reach me there at my school e-mail address: mmacdonald@vsb.bc.ca.

It has been my privilege to be on the BCTF staff. Working with grown-ups is just as enjoyable as teaching children. I’m happy to have had a chance to do both.

For the next four years and six weeks, our health and safety program is in the capable hands of Mark Keelan (mkeelan@bctf.ca) from Surrey, on the prevention side and Gail Montgomery (gmontgomery@bctf.ca), from Prince George on the WCB claims and appeals side.

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

Maureen L. MacDonald is the prevention officer in the health and safety department for a few more days.

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