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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

Health and safety: The sky is falling! Now What?

by Maureen L. MacDonald

Chicken Little said it. "The sky is falling! the sky is falling!" Well, Chicken Little was a birdbrain. Didn’t have a clue. Please allow me to translate that famous phrase into health and safety language, which states the situation and aims for a solution. "Bad things are, or might be, happening! We need a plan!"

My work as a prevention officer in the BCTF’s Health and Safety Department is not to prevent health and safety, (that always makes me smile), but to help locals and members to prevent injuries and illnesses on the job. In other words, I assist in developing plans.

Here’s a small sample of some recent events. See if you can formulate a workable plan to avoid or to correct the falling of the sky.

Button up your overcoat
Is it too cold for comfort in your classroom? If you have been reading this column since I started writing it, in November 2002, you know that the topic of cold indoor temperature has come up many times.

The plan in some districts is to tell students and staff members to dress warmly. If you think that is a good plan, you may have frostbite of the brain. You could use a little adjustment of your thin cotton thinking cap. Step right up, and I’ll fix that for you.

On the other hand, if you think that a cold school is a likely eventuality and a plan should be discussed by the Joint Occupational Health & Safety (JOH&S) Committee and known by all staff in advance of the indoor cold snap, you are thinking clearly. When the plan is developed, keep in mind WCB Regulation 4.80, which states, "The employer must ensure that temperature and humidity levels within the indoor work environment are maintained within acceptable comfort ranges, as far as is practicable." In winter, those ranges are 20 to 24ºC. Also know that the School Act Section 90 (2) says "A school medical health officer may require a board to close a school when the school medical health officer considers that the health or safety of students is at risk."

In January 2004, a school operated all day at 11ºC in one district, while in another district all the students in a school were sent home by 9:30 a.m. The staff didn’t have to stay there in the cold either.

Eau de varnish and paint
A gym floor was varnished. Several teachers and students got headaches. Paint, some water-based and some oil-based, was applied during the school day. Several staff members and students experienced runny eyes, sneezing, sore throats, and rashes.

Should the plan be (a) grin and bear it, or (b) grumble to colleagues and friends, or (c) develop some guidelines for painting and recommend them to your school board through the JOH&S committee at your worksite? If (c) is your plan, you may want to apply for my job some day.

You don’t even have to start your plan from scratch. The BCTF has a Construction/ Renovation/Maintenance/Repair Protocol that you can get from the Health and Safety page on the BCTF web site at bctf.ca/education/health.

Adapt it for painting. If you know in advance that you suffer adverse reactions, ask to be temporarily reassigned to a location with non-smelly air. If you get sick at school, file a WCB claim. Don’t use your sick leave for work-related illnesses. Keep in touch with your local president.

Oh give me time, lots of planning time...
Does your school have a fire safety plan and an earthquake plan? Of course it does. In writing. For reference and review regularly. Everybody knows.

Don’t stop at just those two plans while you’re on a roll.

Violent students? Report to your school’s Joint Occupational Health & Safety (JOH&S) Committee. Read WCB Reg. 4.27--4.31. Do a risk assessment, and develop a violence prevention plan. Find out your district’s restraint policy. Each violent student needs a safety plan. Put it into the IEP if there is one. File a WCB incident report if you are threatened. Have the first-aid attendant record any injury, no matter how small, in the first-aid log. Tell your local president.

Strangers wandering the halls? Develop a visitors plan, and ask each visitor to report to the office to get a visitor’s badge.

Bomb threat? Who goes back into the evacuated school to see if it is safe? (Police come to mind right away.) What if the weather is too miserable to stay outside on the field while waiting? Hand me the emergency plan, and I’ll check.

Other emergency? These actual announcements have been heard over the PA system as a coded way to tell teachers to lock their doors and wait for further instructions. Attention all staff: Dr. Nightingale is in the school; the superintendent is in the building; Dr. Sharp is in the building; Please return the large scissors to the office immediately; Code red. What’s the secret phrase in your school? If you are an itinerant teacher or a TOC, would you know what to do? Find a way to inform those valuable colleagues. Speaking of emergency plans, plan a lockdown procedure that includes "No one use the washrooms." Hope you’ll never have to test it.

Are you the only one on site? Who knows where you are? Get right on this item if it has not been discussed lately by your staff. Put it on the agenda of your school’s next JOH&S committee meeting. You need a working alone or in isolation plan. See WCB Reg. 4.21 to 4.23. The plan is not just for school days if teachers have keys to the schools. There have been some serious problems on holidays.

Going to your car on a dark and stormy night? Think staff safety plan. Many schools have a buddy system for leaving after dark. Many JOH&S committees have successfully recommended that outdoor lighting be installed around their schools.

The end is near
No, the sky is not falling! And even if the sky really is falling, we have plans to prop it up safely. The end of this list of plans is near. Just one more thing. Plan to report all health and safety concerns to your worksite JOH&S committee. Without a record of a problem, some higher-ups think there is no problem. Plan to serve on a JOH&S committee during your career. Plan to attend the health and safety workshops offered to committee members annually. (The BCTF workshops are superb. Just ask the hundreds who have taken them.) And finally, plan to speak up for health and safety. Be vocal in your local. Don’t keep parents in the dark about things like mouldy ceilings or poor indoor air quality. Remember, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.

Thanks for reading this article. Special thanks to the members of the BCTF Health and Safety Advisory Committee, the BCTF Health and Safety Trainers, the locally elected Health and Safety reps, and all the JOH&S committee members, whose ongoing work is so important.

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

If you would like your name added to the BCTF occupational health and safety e-mail list, contact Whitney Burgess: wburgess@bctf.ca.

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