By Adrienne Markowitz and Eileen Senn
An assault on regulations that protect worker and community health is underway. The Trump administration is putting proponents of deregulation in charge of federal regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No doubt the much smaller equally important U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will suffer a similar fate.
OSHA helps fund and monitor the performance of the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program that covers public and charter school employees in New Jersey. Both OSHA and PEOSH have historically been underfunded and understaffed and have been unable to inspect even a tiny fraction of the workplaces they cover even during Democratic administrations. They have been prevented from adopting commonsense regulations such as one requiring all employers to establish a health and safety program.
Health inspectors who used to work exclusively for PEOSH now get pulled into many other types of investigations. PEOSH does virtually no enforcement of the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard, which addresses the most common health hazard in schools. While labor unions and worker and community advocates will do their best to defend regulatory agencies, the situation can be expected to be a monumental challenge during the next four years.
$2,000 grants for radon testing
Although there is no mandatory radon testing for New Jersey schools, the DEP Radon Testing Program will award up to $2,000 on a first-come, first-served basis to a school (not a district) toward radon testing costs. Locals can encourage their schools to test and apply. Visit njradon.org/download/grants_2016.pdf or call the DEP at 609-984-5423.
Asbestos is still present in most schools in New Jersey and has been regulated by state and federal agencies for decades. Asbestos in schools is unique in that PEOSH is not the main enforcement agency. Instead, the New Jersey Department of Health (DOH) enforces the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). Despite AHERA being on the books for 30 years, local associations in Passaic City and Rockaway Township recently dealt with incidents in which administrators were unaware of materials containing asbestos in several schools.
NJEA and its frequent partner, the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), filed Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for the number and results of AHERA inspections by the DOH. NJEA and WEC found that only one half-time inspector has been on the job, performing inspections in just 99 public and private schools in the past two years. The inspector found a total of 458 violations in 73 of the inspections. Yet the EPA has targeted these inspections to be phased out by 2018 because of other funding priorities. Unless advocates such as NJEA, WEC and the Healthy Schools Now (HSN) coalition successfully intervene, crucial AHERA inspections in schools will become a thing of the past.
To make the situation more ironic, asbestos has been named one of the first 10 chemicals that will be evaluated under the 2016 Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The cancer-causing mineral was selected based on the severity of the health hazard it presents and the high probability of potential exposure.
NJEA lead training available:
NJEA and WEC have prepared a 2-hour training workshop covering control of lead in the paint and water of schools. Locals can contact their UniServ field representative to arrange for the training for their health and safety committees.
The precarious position of regulatory agencies makes depending on them unwise. Local associations must organize their health and safety committees to enforce the health and safety regulations. Otherwise, it is almost certain that members and students will not be protected as required by PEOSH and other agencies’ regulations.
Local associations should work with their UniServ field representatives to negotiate and win contract language requiring compliance with regulations. Here’s a sample of such language:
“The board of education will comply fully with all applicable health and safety regulations promulgated by federal and state agencies including, but not limited to, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the New Jersey Right-to-Know Program (RTK), the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE), and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).”
It is also vital that every local association health and safety committee become well versed in the valuable information in these NJEA health and safety publications online at njea.org/hs:
The local association committee should conduct walk-through inspections to determine whether the district is in compliance with regulations. If violations are found, the grievance procedure can then be used to enforce contract language, such as the sample above.
A checklist is a good aid for thorough inspections. When using a checklist to go through the workplace, the local association team will not have to remember everything it is looking for. The team can also use the checklist to go back later to see if problems have been corrected. However, checklists should never be used as a substitute for careful observations and talking to members.
Adrienne Markowitz holds a Master of Science in Industrial Hygiene from Hunter College, City University of New York. Eileen Senn holds a Master of Science in Occupational Health from Temple University in Philadelphia. They are consultants with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.
Hazard Communication Checklist used by PEOSH inspectors
Indoor Air Quality Checklist used by PEOSH inspectors
Four NJEA school health and safety checklists in the
Health and Safety Manual
New Jersey Safe Schools Manual
A manual of 82 self-inspection checklists on environmental, health and safety regulations for secondary occupational and career-oriented programs.
“Health and safety language in the contract; Better than any regulatory agency!” NJEA Review, June 2015.