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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

Health and safety: Privacy vs. the right to know

By Mark Keelan

One of the questions asked of the BCTF’s Health and Safety office fairly frequently is whether or not teachers have the right to know if individual students have communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis B. Or, do students have the right to keep their personal medical information private?

Section 115 of the Workers Compensation Act outlines the general duties of employers. The first and most important of those duties is the obligation to ensure the health and safety of all of the employer’s workers. That includes an obligation to either eliminate, or at least minimize, the risk that school district workers will contract a communicable disease on the job.

Compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation (OH&SR) will help employers to fulfill their obligations. Part 6 of the OH&SR includes provisions for how to deal with biohazardous materials. Specifically, OH&SR 6.34 states that employers must establish an exposure control plan, "if a worker has or may have occupational exposure to a bloodborne pathogen, or to other biohazardous material...." The exposure control plan must include, among other things, a statement of purpose and responsibilities, the method to be used for risk identification, assessment and control, provision for education and training, and written work procedures. Most BCTF members have never seen their district’s exposure control plan. Ask for it.

To comply with OH&SR 6.35, the employer must identify all tasks and procedures in which there is a potential for occupational exposure to a bloodborne pathogen, or to other biohazardous material. These tasks and procedures could include, among others, playground supervision, teaching a physical education class, coaching a sports team, or dealing with student fights.

OH&SR 6.36 outlines specific controls that the employer must put in place where there is a risk to workers of exposure to biohazardous materials. Subsection 1 states in part that engineering and work practice controls must be established to eliminate or minimize occupational exposures. Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment used for medical treatment, something that is not particularly applicable to schools. However, work practice controls can certainly be established in schools. Such controls could include provisions for ensuring that only trained individuals who have the proper equipment, i.e., not teachers, clean up blood, vomit, urine, and other bodily fluids.

OH&SR 6.36 also states that personal protective equipment (PPE) must be used to shield workers from biohazardous materials. The employer must supply personal protective equipment and must train workers in how to use it. Appropriate PPE in schools includes surgical quality gloves, masks to prevent bodily fluids from getting into the eyes, nose and mouth, and single-use, one-way resuscitation devices for use in emergency mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Teachers should have this equipment readily available to them, particularly when they are most likely to encounter student injuries, for example, playground supervision and physical education class.

Recall that OH&SR 6.35 requires that the employer identify tasks and procedures in which there is a potential for occupational exposure to a bloodborne pathogen, or to other biohazardous material. Subsection 6 of OH&SR 6.36 requires the implementation of universal precautions for those tasks and procedures. Universal precautions are procedures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of bloodborne pathogens. Universal precautions require that all human blood and other potentially infectious bodily fluids be treated as if they were known to be infected with HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B or other bloodborne pathogens.

Clearly, then, employers have an obligation to ensure that workers are protected from contracting communicable diseases at work. But, do students not have the right to keep certain information about themselves private?

A person’s right to keep medical issues private is something that courts, tribunals, and officials have consistently ruled must be vigorously protected. For example, in a March 2007 letter to the BCTF, British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis, states "...personal information about one’s HIV/AIDS status, in particular, is extremely sensitive and warrants robust privacy protection." This being the case, how can a worker’s right to be safe at work be reconciled with a student’s right to privacy?

Universal precautions, together with the other provisions of Part 6 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, are the answer. Employers’ compliance with the provisions eliminates the need for workers to be given information that must be kept private.

BCTF members can help to protect themselves, their co-workers, and their students by insisting that their employers:

  • have an exposure-control plan.
  • have identified tasks and procedures that could expose workers to biohazardous materials.
  • have procedures in place to eliminate or minimize the risk of exposure.
  • have appropriate personal protective equipment readily available.
  • have instituted a system of universal precautions.
  • have provided education about biohazardous material and bloodborne pathogens.
  • have provided staff with the training necessary to carry out the established procedures.
  • have provided training in the use of universal precautions and personal protective equipment.

Putting together a comprehensive program will cost school districts some time and money. However, protecting their employees from potentially deadly illnesses, and the peace of mind that goes with such protection, is worth it.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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