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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

Health & Safety
Fighting back is a wellness activity

by Maureen L. MacDonald

There it was, "The urgency for teacher wellness," an article by Julia Johnson, from Quesnel, right next to my Health and Safety column in the Nov./Dec. 2003 issue of Teacher. Great stuff. So true. She asks an important question: "How do you keep well enough to do the job of teaching, well enough to avoid becoming an extended-medical-leave statistic, well enough to enter today’s classrooms with peace and joy instead of living in the future vision of retirement, well enough to inspire our youth to become life-long learners?"

Several colleagues were discussing wellness in the BCTF staffroom just after that newsmagazine was distributed. Christina Schut (Field Service Division) said, "Fighting back is a wellness activity." We all agreed. Chris recalled reading an article by a psychologist who said, in effect, that standing up for your rights is good for your self-esteem and your physical health. That makes sense. So, without forgetting the healthy lifestyle and all the other physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual choices teachers can make to relieve stress, we must also remember that changing of the stressful condition is what we want, and we make change happen by taking action.

Fighting back is something that BCTF members do often and do with success. Is it really a wellness activity? Certainly. If it improves the learning and working conditions in schools, then it improves personal wellness. If fighting back makes us feel less like doormats and more like members of a union of professionals, our self-esteem rises and every one of us is better for it.

Teaching and learning are best done when the indoor temperature and humidity are "within acceptable comfort ranges..." (WCB Reg. 4.80) The WCB standard for thermal comfort in winter is from 20º to 24ºC with 30 to 50% relative humidity, or 20º to 23ºC if the relative humidity is 60%. So do everyone a favour if the heat fails at school. Fight back. Stick together with the staff. Refuse unsafe work. And call your local president.

"Being a victim is bad for your health," says Margaret McMaster, a BCTF Health and Safety training associate. Case in point: A member told his local president that he was sick and had to stay home from work the day after spending a frigid day in his unheated school. My advice was that he be told to file a WCB claim for a work-related illness, and seek to have his sick leave reinstated. Maybe he didn’t know that every worker has the right to refuse unsafe work. (WCB Reg.3.12) He knows now.

Fight back against exposure to Fifth Disease by pregnant members with no Fifth antibodies, and by others with suppressed immune systems. (If you missed my column on Fifth Disease last April, you can find it on the BCTF web site at bctf.ca/ezine/archive/2002-2003/2003-04/support/06FifthDisease.html.) The WCB recognizes Fifth Disease as "biohazardous material" for certain employees, and says that employers must implement an exposure control plan to eliminate or reduce the risk, pursuant to WCB Reg. 6.34. Now, 10 months later, the BCTF believes that those plans should be in place already, and the BCPSEA is cautioning school boards not to develop a district exposure control plan because this is a provincial matter. But the BCPSEA is not an employer of any BCTF members. It is the bargaining agent for school boards. Some of our employers have Fifth Disease exposure control plans in place, thank you very much. Some of our employers are not implementing plans, despite the WCB ruling, because of the BCPSEA advice. Is there any choice but to fight back? Would you want to belong to an organization that let it ride?

Violent incidents in classrooms are not to be tolerated. ("Fight back" seems like a violent term when considered alongside violent incidents, but you know what I mean by fighting back with logic and reason and it does not involve violence at all.) Members who have put up with biting, spitting, hitting, kicking, screaming students in the past are fighting back. They file violent incident reports to the WCB and the school board. They report physical injuries such as bruises and bites to the first-aid attendant to be noted in the school’s first aid log. They document all incidents. They report their concerns to the Joint Occupational Health & Safety Committee at the worksite. They use Section 91 of the School Act to medically exclude a student who has a "physical, mental, or emotional condition that would endanger the health or welfare of the other students..." They involve others who are able to resolve the problems.

Teachers are not afraid of fighting back against chronic underfunding to get safer and healthier schools. Whether it is having hot and cold running water, reinstating high standards of cleanliness in school buildings, removal of mould and mildew, getting new lights that don’t hum, seismic upgrading, or any other health and safety issue, we’ll be there. That’s "we." That’s not "they." That’s you and you and you and you and me. Together. Count on it.

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

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

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