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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 2, November/December 2003

Health & Safety Here, there, and everywhere...

by Maureen L. MacDonald

Oh, to be in England
A "stress code" for employers was recently introduced in the United Kingdom. Firms will have to protect their employees from stress or risk legal action. In the U.K., employees can already sue their companies for causing them stress at work, under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The Health and Safety Executive (a government agency) believes that the "stress code" will make it easier for employees to bring actions against firms, and will give its inspectors something against which to measure firms’ performance.

The six-point stress code
Demands—85% of employees must say they can cope with the demands of their job.
Control—85% must feel they have an adequate say over their job.
Support—85% must say they have the back-up they need.
Relationships—65% must say they do not have to face unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying.
Role—65% must say they understand their roles and responsibilities.
Change—65% must say they are involved in organizational change.

If fewer than the required 85% or 65% of all staff feel that each standard has been met, the company will fail its assessment and could face court action or heavy fines. For example, a hospital in Dorset has been given until mid-December to assess staff stress levels and introduce a program to reduce it after failing to meet the standards.

The stress code has been piloted in 24 companies ranging from academic institutions to a supermarket chain. It has had mixed reviews. Positive initial comments have fuelled plans to make it more available to others. But some employers, especially some companies with global interests, are asking how the government can hold employers accountable for increased use of the healthcare system. New research published in Hazards magazine highlights the health risks of stress in the workplace. If you go home with your jaw clenched and your shoulders at your ears, you are 25% more likely to suffer a heart attack, and you have a 50% greater chance of dropping dead from a stroke.

Effects of stress
Effects of stress include palpitations, digestive problems, muscular strain, backache, bowel upsets, raised blood pressure, weakening of the immune system, increase in minor infections, and aggravation of chronic conditions such as eczema.

Meanwhile, back home
What’s to be done here in B.C. about workplace stress? Unlike our overseas counterparts, we can’t sue our employers. We willingly gave up that option decades ago in Canada to get WCB coverage.

At the bargaining table, workers have never traded safety for other objectives. But health is just as important as safety. Mental and physical health issues are crucial for the members of our union. Our so-called collective agreement expires in June. Let’s take the time between now and then to do what we do best: teach. Lets educate our employers about the causes and dangers of stress. Lets talk about the need to feel good about going to work as a valued professional. Lets generate discussion about healthy teachers making a difference to their students as well as to the use of the public healthcare system. Lets make the connection between government underfunding of both the education system and the healthcare system—the top two things that citizens need—and increased stress on the individuals who work in those systems. Depression, anxiety, and obesity are on the increase. Those are not entirely individual problems. There’s a societal responsibility too. Our governments should address it.

One thing each member can do is to report all work-related illnesses to the teachers’ union reps on the Joint Occupational Health & Safety (JOH&S) Committee at school. If you are not sure if your illness is work-related, report anyway—everything from headaches, sore throats, runny noses, itchy eyes, and flare-ups of skin conditions to cancer. Stress is not a medical illness. It manifests itself in many ways. Your school’s JOH&S committee makes reports to the district. Maybe a pattern will show up. There is ongoing research on such things as indoor air quality, cancer clusters, and work.

Let’s make health a burning issue.

Stressed. Read it backwards. Desserts. Uh-oh!

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, please contact Whitney Burgess at wburgess@bctf.ca.

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