Health survey time!
By Dorothy Wigmore
The return to school after summer break is a great time to get a handle on job-related hazards that may affect members’ health—and start getting them fixed.
“We have people who find that when they go back to work, they suddenly don’t feel well, like they do at home,” says Marianne Pace, the Hamilton Township Education Association health and safety committee chair. Pace is also the HTEA second vice president.
It’s not unusual, and often indicates a hazard at work. Renovations could have been done. Air conditioning and ventilation systems might not have been used often during the summer. Old leaks might have been ignored or new ones started. New equipment or chemical products may have been introduced.
The hazards may be linked to immediate health issues. Some also may lead to illnesses or diseases that show up years later. If something unusual seems common, members may ask about possible causes, especially for scary diseases like cancers or reproductive health issues.
If so, it’s time to find out what’s going on, and prevent harm or, in some case, prevent more harm.
There are two approaches. Health and safety committees can look for problems (i.e., the hazards)—information about chemicals, walk-throughs/inspections. Confidential health surveys investigate what’s happening to people. Both hazard identification and member surveys are organizing tools, not just information collection devices.
It can be overwhelming with many members in a local association. Pace turned to NJEA’s health and safety representative who brought in a New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) occupational hygienist.
“I had a call with them, got their suggestions, wrote down the questions that we need to find out. Plus, Allen [Allen Barkkume from WEC] sent me this survey. So that’s where we’re starting,” she says. HTEA is trying to do it with the administration but are prepared to make it a union-only effort.
“It’s related to their own illnesses: how they feel at work, when it started, how many years. Have they worked in their specific room, their specific building? It’s pretty detailed as far as what their symptoms are,” Pace said.
Surveys can focus on specific issues too.
“When members raised concerns about HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) issues in their classrooms, we wanted to find out how many others had the same issues,” says Alison Pohlman, Waretown Education Association president.
“So we created an online survey asking for feedback. Members responded with the locations and issues they were experiencing.
“Online surveys ensure the association knows about members’ health and safety concerns and enable the committee members to communicate issues to the administration,” she says. The results also help inform inspections and walk-throughs.
It’s not a one-time thing or the last step.
“Our health and safety committee will keep surveying our members throughout the school year,” Pohlman adds. “They also plan to meet the administration every other month to discuss reported health and safety concerns and do building walk-throughs with them.”
If results are concerning, and there’s no obvious hazards, there’s help from those trained to investigate job-related hazards and their effects.
NJEA might bring in an epidemiologist—someone trained to study disease patterns—or request a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) free health hazard evaluation. NIOSH specialists study job-related health effects and hazards. (Health departments often understand little about work-related hazards, lack relevant specialists and/or rely on incomplete data – see side box.)
Dorothy Wigmore is a consultant to the New Jersey Work Environment Council and a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, and “stress.” She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.
What about “cancer clusters”?
Cancers usually have a long latency period—the length of time between a person’s first exposure to a hazard and the appearance of the disease. Real clusters are unusual and often difficult to confirm.
All cancers must be reported to state registries when they’re diagnosed. Information collected then includes the person’s current address and something about their current job—not where they lived or their workplace/job earlier.
“Registry data are often incredibly limited to answer occupational health questions,” says Lowell Center for Sustainable Production project manager, Molly Jacobs. “It’s only through people on the ground who are connecting the dots that raises the alarm.” (See Resources on Page 47.)
Answers take an epidemiological study, looking at the “dots,” time, space and possible hazards. Whatever the results, there still can be hazards—with other effects—to fix.
What can health and safety committees do?
Start collecting information informed by experience and members’ knowledge, but without assumptions.
- Ask the school nurse about their data, going back as far as possible.
- Hold events (e.g., brown bag lunches) to discuss questions/concerns, using body maps to start conversations, see patterns.
- Use the NJEA Health and safety Manual health survey or others in the resources—electronically and/or briefly train members to distribute it personally.
- Set due dates with one or two reminders (see the StressAssess protocol).
- Have events to help focus members on filling in the survey and their mutual responsibility to take action to get results.
- Get help to interpret the results from NJ WEC and/or NJEA representatives (they can go further afield if needed).
- For a serious concern, work with the union to alert the state health department (but don’t leave it there) and request a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) when the cause is uncertain or difficult to determine.
- Keep track of hazards (e.g., workplace maps).
- Push for fixing hazards using the precautionary principle.
- Support members’ workers’ compensation claims.
- Document, document, document—and follow-up, always
Occupational cancer/Zero cancer:
A Union Guide to Prevention bit.ly/3BIZkIt
Also, search “cancer” at hazards.org.
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees
Surveys as organizing tools bit.ly/iatse-surveys
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Health Hazard Evaluations: cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/default.html
Hazard information: cdc.gov/niosh/index.htm
Health and Safety Manual: njea.org/download/1784
“Better reporting, better results”
“Health and safety committees. Knowledge + Action = Change” njea.org/hscomm-kac
Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers
HazardAssess app and information
StressAssess app and information stressassess.ca