What to do when you have health and safety concerns
|A functioning local association Health and Safety Committee is an effective way to ensure that the important work of advocating for student and staff well-being remains a priority.
Suppose you are suffering from headaches and sinus problems that seem to get worse during the work week, and better on weekends. Or you notice deteriorating white insulation on a pipe and you're worried it's asbestos. What should you do?
You'll probably consider calling someone for technical assistance. Before you do, it is a good idea to do some advance preparation.
First, involve others. Call your UniServ representative to discuss the problem. Alert your local association president, officers and Health and Safety Committee (HSC) to the problem.
Once everyone is aware of the problem, you and your colleagues are best served by gathering as much appropriate information as possible before you call for technical assistance.
What information should you gather?
Experience of your coworkers
If you have symptoms you think are building-related, chances are some of your colleagues do too. It is good to conduct an employee survey, as described in the NJEA Health and Safety Manual, Page 21 (see sidebar).
What the building reveals
Look for connections between building conditions and symptoms. Conduct a walk-through inspection. Detailed forms for a general health and safety walk-through, as well as surveys for mold, indoor air quality, and construction and renovation are in the NJEA Health and Safety Manual, beginning on Page 23.
Review documentation of past problems
If you have had any state or federal inspections, such as by Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) or the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), request reports from the district or the enforcement agency. These requests should be made in writing through your local association on local association letterhead. Similarly, request reports from consultants hired by the district.
Documents required by law
Various health and safety laws require the school district to keep records. Records listed below are available in the school office or from the school district unless otherwise noted. For more detail, see the NJEA Health and Safety Manual, pages 29-32.
1. Hazardous Chemicals:
- Asbestos. The AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) requires all schools to have an asbestos management plan, which requires the district to inspect the school every three years, monitor any asbestos in place for signs of deterioration and remove it when necessary under strict state and federal regulations. Staff must be notified annually about the inspection and the availability of the asbestos management plan.
- Other hazardous substances: Two overlapping laws govern this. A list of hazardous substances present in the school, including storage, amounts and locations, filed with the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) every five years, is required by the New Jersey Worker and Community Right to Know Act. The most recent list was required in 2009. The PEOSH Hazard Communication Standard also requires a list of all hazardous chemicals used in the workplace, which can be the same list.
In addition, the Hazard Communication Standard requires a written Hazard Communication Program, records of staff training, and a file of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are information sheets developed by manufacturers about a particular chemical product. The district or school must keep the lists, fact sheets and MSDSs, and must provide copies of all of these within five days of a written request.
- The PEOSH standard on Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories requires a Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP), meaning a written program developed and implemented by the employer that sets forth procedures, equipment, personal protective equipment and work practices. The regulation does not state where the CHP must be kept, but requires that employees be informed of its location during training on the law.
- Pesticides: The New Jersey School Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Act, in effect since 2004, requires the school to keep records of all pest-control measures.
2. Medical testing and exposure monitoring data: These are required by the PEOSH Access to Medical and Monitoring Data Standard. Access must be given within 15 working days after a request. Records must be kept for 30 years. Records from medical and monitoring contractors are also covered. Data may include:
- Exposure monitoring, such as air, wipe, or bulk samples, including for asbestos or lead.
- Biological monitoring, such as blood lead tests.
- Worker medical records (with each individual’s consent).
- Summaries, reports, and studies based on exposure and medical records.
3. Illness and injury logs:
- PEOSH Log 300 of Injury and illnesses: Access must be provided within one day of request.
- PEOSH Log 300A Summary of work related injuries and illnesses must be posted from Feb. 1 to April 30 each year.
4. The PEOSH Bloodborne Pathogens Standard: This requires a written plan including who is covered, training, and records of training and exposures.
5. Records of fire and building inspector inspections, citations and fines.
6. Records of school bus inspections: These can be found at www.njmvc.gov.
7. Workers’ Compensation records: Your UniServ field representative can help you access them.
How a Health and Safety Committee can document problems to prepare for your request:
- Survey your colleagues for problems past and present.
- Conduct your own walk-through inspection; take notes and pictures.
- Gather and review appropriate documents, such as hazardous chemical surveys, AHERA records, records of pesticide use, DEP inspection reports PEOSH correspondence or reports.
How a technical assistant can help:
- Interpret the information you gather.
- Recommend further investigation and remediation projects.
- Conduct further investigations.
- Conduct training.
- Provide resources.
If you don't have an HSC
Your UniServ field representative can help organize one in conjunction with your association president and other officers. A Health and Safety Committee is more effective than a single person. It can investigate problems, request documents, call meetings and follow-up investigation recommendations, without fearing disciplinary action from district or school administration. It also spreads the work beyond just one person. For NJEA Reporter articles on HSCs, see this index.