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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Health and safety: Concern, and hope

by Maureen L. MacDonald

Concern, and hope. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and friend of this planet, has those two central themes in her ongoing message about conserving the world’s wild spaces. Genius.

Let’s borrow from Dr. Goodall’s idea and concentrate on health and safety. Concern? Teachers have it in spades. Hope? Without it, you can’t be in the business of making the future better.

Some recent concerns leap to mind.

The Workers’ Compensation Board has recently repealed some valuable worker-friendly regulations and proposed changes to more. In its desire to cut red tape and reduce all government regulations by one-third, the so-called Liberal government has directed the WCB to eliminate some health and safety regulations and to water down some of the remaining ones by making them performance-based. The performance-based regulations are general and open to interpretation, leaving it up to the employer to determine the steps to take to implement them. The former prescriptive regulations informed employers and employees clearly of the steps to take. Put the current reduction in regulations alongside the 2002 reduction of 550 staff and the closure of three offices. See if you think the WCB is strong enough to ensure safe conditions in all worksites with fewer inspectors and enforcement officers. In 2000 to 2003, WCB inspection reports decreased by 54%. WCB Orders to employers to change unsafe or unhealthy conditions fell by 57%. Penalties for violations declined 72%. Grave concern.

What hope is there? First, that the Joint Occupational Health & Safety Committee at each worksite will become even more vigilant. We can all make sure of that. Second, the knowledge that the WCB Board of Directors is composed of Gordon Campbell’s government appointees. There is a provincial election next May. Connect the dots.

Another concern of teachers is the death and injury of workers on the job. In B.C. in 2002, 232 workers died from a work-related injury or illness. In 2003, 170 B.C. workers did not go home at the end of the workday. About 5,000 B.C. workers are permanently injured each year. Teachers work in conditions with relatively low hazards, but we share the desire for all workers to have safe and healthy job sites. That’s one reason we mark April 28 in our calendars and take part in National Day of Mourning ceremonies to honour the memory of people who died of work-related causes. Of particular concern to us is the high rate of death and injury among young people. Five young workers between the ages of 15 and 24 died on the job in 2002. Every day in B.C., 34 young workers are injured on the job. What prevention took place at those worksites?

Proper orientation, training, and supervision of young workers prevent injuries and save lives. The employer is responsible for doing that, yet we hear of students whose instructions are, for example, "Clean the floor" but who have no clue about ergonomic work methods, personal protective equipment, toxic chemicals in the cleaning products, WHMIS* or MSDS*. Sometimes the employer is a company. Sometimes it is parents putting their child to work in the family business. Asking for initial training is not in the vocabulary of many student-workers. That’s where we come in.

Here comes the hope. One way the BCTF is trying to improve conditions is through the B.C. Federation of Labour’s new Young Worker Education Project. The one-hour program for Grade 11 and 12 students is free to schools for the asking (Call Sheila Moir at the BCFed, 604-430-1421). Workers under age 25, including two teachers are available to make presentations. Students learn about their basic rights under the Workers’ Compensation Act and the WCB Regulations: the right to know, the right to participate, the right to refuse unsafe work, and the right to no discrimination. In union jobs or not, all workers have those rights. They need to know and exercise them.

You have rights. It’s the law. Use them!
1. The right to know about dangers in the workplace.
2. The right to participate in workplace health-and-safety activities through the Joint OH&S Committee or worker rep.
3. The right to refuse unsafe work.
4. The right to no discrimination. You cannot be fired or disciplined for participation in OH&S activities.

Alarms sounded for teachers when the provincial government introduced its new Child Labour Law in December 2003.

Students much younger than senior secondary school age now need information about employment standards. So do their parents, at least one of whom must give permission for a child to work. (Previously there was a permit process under the Employment Standards Branch that included a director granting permission, and consultation with school authorities.) The easing of restrictions regarding children aged 12 to 15 who work in B.C. makes child advocates very anxious. According to Regulation 45.3, children can work not more than four hours on a school day and not more than seven hours on a day that is not a school day. This work must be outside of school hours. And here’s the part that really illustrates "the interconnectedness of everything to everything else," (Tony Flanders). Children can work no more than 20 hours per week, in a week that has five school days, and in any case, not more than 35 hours a week. Will children who live in school districts that have opted to cut their budgets by closing the schools one day each week or one day every other week be exploited? Our concern for the academic and social development of working children keeps growing. We hope that employers take particular notice and care of their young workers, especially those who run with scissors! We hope that our daily teachings instil knowledge of their rights in our students. We hope they will question authority when it comes to work processes for which they are not ready. We hope that a provincial government with better policies will be elected next year at this time.

Thanks for reading this article. Just by doing that, you have given me hope that our mutual concerns will be monitored, and unhealthy or unsafe situations remedied.

*MSDS means Material Safety Data Sheet. *WHMIS means Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems.

For child labour information, visit bctf.ca/social/ChildLabour.

To be added to the BCTF occupational health and safety e-mail list, contact Whitney Burgess, wburgess@bctf.ca.

Maureen MacDonald is the prevention officer in the BCTF Health & Safety Department.

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