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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Health and safety: The right to know

by Mark Keelan

There is a saying that goes something like this: "What you don’t know can’t hurt you." The saying may sometimes be true. For example, perhaps you forget you are getting a raise. It didn’t hurt to forget and then to find a pleasant surprise when you check your bank balance. Or, it probably will not hurt you if your partner is planning a surprise birthday party. But, when it comes to health and safety, what you don’t know can, and often does, hurt you.

Many BCTF members are very good about standing up for their rights. We don’t allow the employer to underpay us. The principal can’t arbitrarily take away our prep time. Why is it, then, that we often tend to allow our health and safety rights to be trampled? Perhaps it is because many members are not aware that the first of our basic health and safety rights is "the right to know."

Did you know that there are over 100,000 human-made chemicals in the world, that fewer than 10% of them have been tested for their long-term effects, and that many commonly used chemicals are known human carcinogens?

The Workers’ Compensation Act clearly states that workers have the right to know what toxic chemicals exist in their workplaces. Despite that fact, few teachers know what chemicals make up the cleaning products, the building materials, and the lab supplies in their schools.

Enforce your right to know! Find out what cleaning products are being used in your school. Are there chemicals in the science or home ec labs that haven’t been used for years? If you work in a school that was built before about 1980 it is likely that the building contains asbestos. Have you seen the asbestos inventory? Do you know how to get the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a chemical that is being used?

Don’t know where to start? Help is available. The BCTF, the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS), CUPE, and others are participating in a joint venture to find out what types of chemicals exist in schools. The ultimate goal of the project is to eliminate all toxic chemicals from schools. Please contact Mark Keelan at the BCTF who can assist you in conducting a chemical inventory of your school.

Did you know that the employer must advise every worker who may come in contact with a student, or a parent who has a history of violence, of the nature and extent of that history of violence and of ways to deal with that person?

Many teachers who work with violent students think that it is simply part of the job to be kicked, punched, slapped, threatened, and spat upon. This is particularly true of teachers who work with students with special needs, some of whom are violent, although many not intentionally so. In fact, teachers do not have to be beaten up at work. The employer has a legal obligation to keep every one of its workers safe.

Teachers are often told that they cannot have access to information about the violent past of a student because it would violate the student’s right to privacy. This is simply not true. The School Act, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Youth Criminal Justice Act all contain provisions that allow the release of information related to safety. All supercede the student’s privacy rights.

Insist that your school and your school district have provisions in place for the prompt disclosure of information about histories of violence. Insist that a proper risk assessment and safety plan is in place before a student with such a history is placed in your class. And, insist that the employer provides appropriate training for dealing with violent students.

Did you know that every time there is an incident at work in which a worker is injured, or there is an incident that has the potential to cause an injury, the employer must ensure that the incident is thoroughly investigated?

It is a legal requirement that workers must report promptly to the employer if they suffer an injury in the course of their work. There is a further legal requirement that the employer must ensure that the incident is investigated and that the investigation include recommendations for how to prevent further injury.

The reality is that teacher injuries, particularly injuries arising from violence and ergonomics, are vastly under-reported. In addition, it is a fact that when incidents are reported they are often not investigated. These two facts combine to increase the likelihood that other workers will be injured the same way.

Probably the best way to correct these problems is to make sure that there is a well-trained, effective, and assertive joint health and safety committee in the school. Such a committee will ensure that members are educated about their obligation to report injuries, will ensure that committee members are part of the investigations into every incident, and will help to write and implement the recommendations that will prevent incidents from reoccurring.

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

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