Your best solution: A health and safety committee

Lindenwold school

Photo by Dawn Dreher

A school in Lindenwold required dramatic measures to remediate water intrusion that had led to serious mold growth.

Mold in the classroom. Water in the walls.

In the Pine Hill school district, there was mold growing behind the cork board on the exterior wall of a middle school classroom. Several fixes had been tried, but the problem persisted. Maintenance staff person John Staab wanted a structural engineer to find the cause. Staab brought a complaint to his UniServ field representative, Nancy Holmes. Holmes asked Staab if he had consulted his health and safety committee (HSC).

"The what?" Staab responded.

Holmes congratulated him for being the head of a new HSC. That's how the committee was founded.

Planning and documenting

Staab summoned concerned faculty and other maintenance staff to discuss building problems. They then had a meeting and workshop led by NJEA Organizing Specialist Thomas Hardy on how to develop an effective HSC. After several meetings, they decided to pilot their efforts in the middle school before addressing problems in the other three schools.

The committee got to work documenting problems. The middle school is only 12 years old, so its history was well known to maintenance staff and administrators. Still there were unanswered questions, such as whether litigation was delaying repair of ongoing roof leaks. The committee proceeded with an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, which produced boxes of documents proving there was no litigation, and revealing other useful information.

Groundbreaking resolution 

Before meeting with key administrators, committee subgroups pored over information on specific problems, and developed proposals using a simple formula: this is the situation, and this is how we want it handled.

They wrote a groundbreaking resolution, asking that “all projects in the district that could affect the health and safety of employees or students must be shown to the Health and Safety Committee before beginning, and that contractors and subcontractors must be identified.”

The latter provision would allow NJEA staff to vet the contractors. The superintendent signed off on the resolution, and has been cooperative in getting problems fixed. In addition, the committee won several precedent-setting demands regarding the roof, including:

  • Have a certified engineer determine the source of water entering exterior walls.
  • Replace leaking shingles on the roof and establish a budget for future repairs.
  • Post-repair testing in each problem area until the area is deemed safe.
  • The right of the local association to have its own professionals administer testing at local association expense.

The agreement was struck in June 2012 and the roof was fixed by August.

The terms of the fix are just as important as the repair itself, because they include finding the source of the problem, not just putting a band aid on it, and because they include a budget for future repairs.

Success in Lindenwold

For many years, teachers in basement classrooms experienced respiratory problems, headaches, and nausea that disappeared during the summer months. They took their concerns to the association president, Debra Napoli, who contacted their UniServ field representative, Donna Maurer. Maurer suggested they form a Health and Safety Committee.  As in Pine Hill, Hardy guided the new HSC as they collected teacher surveys to establish a history of symptoms, and did a walk-through, including photographs of problem areas.

Time after time, maintenance staff had been told to replace wet or moldy ceiling tiles, but not to find or fix the source of water. The committee collected years of requests for repairs, called Help Desk Tickets, and marked the photos with dates. When administrators claimed they'd already fixed a problem, the HSC was able to show photos of mold dated after the "fix."  After two years of this process, the administration finally instituted extensive repairs.

A dramatic fix

The building was built over a swamp, but the ground around it had not been graded to slope down from the building to conduct water away, nor did the building have a proper moisture barrier. There were also plumbing and roof leaks. Whenever it rained, water backed up into the basement, leaving a musty smell.

To fix the below-ground water problem, the mold-contaminated soil was dug up several feet deep along the front wall, and the wall was scraped. A retaining wall was built in the trench, about four feet from the building. Both building and wall received plastic liners as moisture barriers. Then the trench was filled with replacement soil. Inside the building, HVAC systems were installed in two basement classrooms, leaky plumbing from an upstairs bathroom was corrected, repairs were made to the affected classrooms, and new ceiling panels were installed throughout the lower landings.

To date, the HSC must still collect Help Desk Tickets and dated photos to get problems fixed. It often takes a few weeks, but the HSC provided an effective channel to get action.

Key role of HSC

These two local associations show the power of an HSC and the steps it can take:

  • >Document symptoms and hazards through teacher surveys, walk-throughs, photos, and OPRA requests.
  • Decide on clear demands.
  • Meet with administration.
  • Follow up when demands are not met.

When administration is supportive, the repair process can flow quickly and effectively, as in Pine Hill. But even with a less supportive administration, the HSC can still be the means to achieve solutions, and a place where staff can bring their problems without fear of retaliation.

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