By Dorothy Wigmore
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A former journalist, the Canadian has worked in the U.S. and Mozambique and been involved in efforts to prevent violence on the job since 1989.
There’s been a flood in the school or a drain backed up. Water leaked through the ceiling. Humidity levels were high.
Mold may be next, developing on anything from walls and ceilings to musical instruments and books. When it appears, students and staff—especially if they have allergies or respiratory problems—can get sick from live or dead mold. It requires proper action within at least 48 hours. (For more about preventing mold, see “Why my school?” in the January Review.)
But what’s the right way to “clean and dry”? Who should do it? What can other school staff do?
New Jersey’s public sector indoor air quality (IAQ) standard [NJAC 12:100-13.1 (2007)] requires employers have a trained “designated person” responsible for prevention and problem-solving. Mandated mold-related remediation includes dealing with wet materials within 48 hours after discovery of its presence.
In practice, custodians usually clean up moldy areas. New Jersey’s Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines say those staff can clean up small- and mid-sized moldy areas, with proper training about the hazards and methods, and the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). Training should be part of the mandatory hazard communication program (NJAC 12:100-7) for these workers. This training is required when someone starts a job or new hazards are present. As of 2017, refresher training is required every other year. It must cover the hazards, clean-up methods and PPE required.
That PPE includes respirators. If the employer doesn’t offer a respirator, workers can request it. Either way, PEOSH’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) applies. Employers must ensure users are medically approved to wear one, fit tested for the device and trained about how to use it.
Single-use N-95s often are recommended for mold remediation. Recent work indicates that workers likely are better protected with reusable “elastomeric” (silicone or rubber) half-face respirators fitted with P100 filters. (See above graphic.)
Procedures depend on the size of the moldy area and the surface affected. Everyone in the building is protected if custodians and maintenance workers are protected, the work is done properly and thoroughly, and the mold is not allowed to spread.
When the affected area exceeds 30 square feet, it’s time for professional help. Additional help is also needed if remediation workers or people nearby may have had significant exposure to mold spores. These situations require special training and PPE, with full “containment” (i.e., the area—including its ventilation system—is closed off with plastic and duct tape, under negative pressure).
For small contaminated spots, less than 10 square feet:
• Clean-up staff needs effective and fitted PPE (respirator, gloves, and goggles).
• No one else should be in the work area and people in nearby spaces—especially the immune-suppressed or those with asthma or allergies—should be moved away.
• Workers should mist or otherwise dampen the area before working on it.
• The area must be treated (using a material-specific method), or removed in a sealed, impermeable plastic bag.
• The treated area, and where remediation workers came and went, must be wiped down with a damp cloth/mop and detergent, and dried.
For medium areas, the PPE required depends on how likely those doing the work are to inhale the mold or get it in their eyes. Besides the procedures for small spots, workers:
• Need to cover things in the affected area with secured plastic to prevent further contamination and contain dust/debris.
• After the job is done, use a HEPA vacuum on the work area and spaces they went through, followed by cleaning with a damp cloth/mop and detergent.
• Clean and dry the vacuum tanks, hoses and attachments.
Neither chlorine bleach (it can cause or aggravate asthma) or other biocides (they are toxic) should be used. The area is not being sterilized. The goal is to get rid of the “extra” spores from the leak, flood, etc.; although there will always be some in the air, naturally.
When the affected area exceeds 30 square feet, it’s time for professional help.
Some materials or surfaces should be removed and replaced, including:
• Books and papers, if they’re not valuable.
• Carpet and backing that’s not dried within 24 – 48 hours.
• Ceiling tiles.
• Cellulose or fiberglass insulation.
• In some instances, upholstered furniture.
• Wet drywall or gypsum board with obvious swelling and separated seams.
For other things, there are cleaning guidelines such as:
• Freeze valuable books (in a frost-free device).
• Water extraction vacuums, dehumidifiers, and/or fans can dry out carpet, carpet backing, concrete or cinder block surfaces, and most flooring (remember sub-flooring).
• Damp wiping with water and mild detergent cleans hard and porous flooring, plastics, metals, and treated/finished woods (they must be dried afterwards).
• Other wood needs gentle heat, dehumidifiers and fans.
When in doubt, specialists can help. The district indoor air quality (IAQ) “designated person” or NJEA can point members to these individuals.
There soon may be more “rules” about mold remediation. A-1433 would require the State Department of Community Affairs to establish mold inspection and “abatement” procedures for schools and residential buildings. It also would have to set up a program to train inspectors and certify those doing remediation. Only people with that training or certification could inspect for, or clean up, mold.
School staff doing mold remediation may need support to ensure they’re protected, trained properly and able to protect others in the school. Other staff and union leaders can learn what’s needed and check with custodians and maintenance workers to ensure that it is happening.
“It’s not our job to clean up,” says Mike Mannion, an NJEA UniServ consultant and Central Regional Education Association president. “NJEA members should report mold quickly. Make sure that you’re reporting it to both union leaders and administration. Don’t sit on it, because if you wait from Monday, when you spot it, till Thursday, it could be much worse.”