Keeping on keeping on despite pandemic times
By Dorothy Wigmore
Mold in the ceiling? Expected to use toxic chemicals, especially without training or protective gear? Dealing with poor ventilation and air quality? Mercury in gym floors?
Who you gonna call? For NJEA members, the best bet is their union health and safety committee, especially if its members are trained and able to help co-workers tackle hazards.
“I build our health and safety committees around being as strong and recognized as the grievance committees,” says Mike Rollins, Organizational Development field representative and NJEA’s state health and safety contact. “A grievance committee in your local association, that’s for policing the contract. The health and safety committee is for policing health and safety and requirements the district must follow.”
Like other issues that need “policing,” it helps to cover health and safety in the contract.
“More and more locals want to have those committees and language in their contracts,” says Doug Dale, an NJEA consultant and chair of the Monmouth County Education Association Health and Safety Committee. “Not only do the committees engage members, but they also give members an understanding of how they can control what’s happening in the classroom or the building, or how to improve it. Members are starting to understand more and more that they need health and safety language in their contracts, so they can enforce it more. It gives them a timeline for that too.”
With or without contract language, health and safety committee work can be stressful in “normal” times. Dealing with the pandemic—at work and elsewhere—has stressed and burned out many union activists.
Despite pandemic-related burnout, health and safety committees are “the energy part of the district,” Rollins says. Change has come from their knowledge and activism, as the Review has documented.
Workplace safety and health doesn’t fall from the sky. It comes with a systems and prevention framework, rather than blaming individuals. It happens with thinking about health and safety as an organizing tool to build power. And it comes with training and support.
What can stressed or burned out committees do?
As the school year winds down, it’s a good time to lay the groundwork for next fall—what do committee members need to learn about, practice, and do to take care of themselves and others?
NJEA has lots of training events and materials for committees—from specific topics to opportunities to learn from others. There are quarterly statewide meetings and overnight events at the state and county levels. UniServ representatives and Rollins can help deal with reluctant administrations and “What should we do?” questions. The New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) also has materials, offers different types of committee training (e.g., hazard mapping), and provides technical support for local association health and safety committees.
To help others, committee members need to look after themselves too. In these still-pandemic times, “it’s important to consider where people are at now,” says Cecelia Gilligan Leto, WEC’s project director who provides many of the organization’s health and safety workshops.
Committees can do that with a check-in about how individual members are dealing (or have dealt) with the pandemic, what it’s affected in their lives, and how much energy they have for doing things. Talk about what that means for how the committee is doing. A follow-up the conversation with someone from the local association executive committee should take place, talking frankly about what health and safety committee members need to keep going.
Both conversations build trust and reduce stress by increasing support for members from within the committee, other members, the local association and larger union.
One result should be reviewing priorities and timelines: what really needs to, or can, be done before the school year ends, what could be tackled over the summer and before classes resume, and what needs outside help, especially given people’s energy levels.
A helpful and fun framework to do this involves brainstorming three main questions:
- Where are we now (in terms of ourselves, our tasks/plans, how are we doing as a committee)?
- Where do we want to be (by a certain date and/or in general)?
- How do we get there?
Participants use markers to draw or write their answers on large flip charts taped to a wall, although smaller pages at a table work well for a few people. They can do it with or without a facilitator.
The “How” part should cover the self-care for committee members’ needs (e.g., asking for help, setting time limits, saying “I can’t now”). Other things to consider include:
- Do we need to change how we organize ourselves, run our meetings (e.g., rules about “step up, step back,” making decisions)?
- How do we deal with people’s needs, limitations, and disagreements?
- How should we deal with what’s now on our plate?
- What about a survey to find out what hazards/issues members really care about? (See resources.)
- Can we get a quick and important victory to activate the committee and our co-workers? How do we celebrate and brag about it with members?
- How do we share the load, ask for help with a specific task, or recruit new members?
- What is/are the best way(s) to communicate regularly with members and the local’s executive committee.
- Who can find out what other locals have done?
- How do we have some fun? (It’s important)
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist and WEC consultant. She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards. These days, she is writing Transmission Truth? a book about workers’ experiences in the pandemic.
Narrative Power Analysis, and other tools
Committee process toolbox (from the “Seeing the workplace with new eyes” guide for health and safety committees)
Healthy Work Campaign
Hospital Employees Union
The workplace anti-stress guide
Health and Safety Manual
“Health and safety committees. Knowledge + Action = Change”
New Jersey Work Environment Council
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Surveys as organizing tools