Organizing Solves Health & Safety Problems

Published in the May 2015 NJEA Review

by Frances Gilmore

OrganizingIn October 2012, the NJEA Reporter featured a school in Lindenwold with water and mold problems in basement rooms from groundwater incursion. For several years, school maintenance staff was directed to replace wet tiles, but the problem wasn’t solved.

In response, an active health and safety committee (HSC) was formed with NJEA guidance. The HSC documented the problems with copies of years of repair requests and dated photos of failed “fixes.” Finally, the district agreed to a real solution: excavation of a trench around part of the school and the installation of a retaining wall and vapor barrier.

A completely different victory was reported in last month's NJEA Review—the moving of idling school buses from the Pierrepont School in Rutherford. In this case, when months of HSC negotiations with administration failed to produce a solution, local association leaders spoke at a PTA meeting. Concerned parents organized themselves and packed the next school board meeting. The board voted to move the buses during warm-up and established a committee including parents and NJEA members to find a permanent location.

Organizing saved jobs and empowered workers in Cherry Hill

In the spring of 2012, to address custodians’ concerns about the nature of their work and language barriers, the Cherry Hill Education Association (CHEA) held ten Saturday trainings in Spanish and English. The training taught the custodians the English they needed to understand repair and cleanup procedures. They also learned what personal protective equipment to use, how to call in sick or file for workers’ compensation, and other work-related matters.

District administration officials agreed on topics for the training and were present at them. In addition, the administration provided all required health and safety training in English and Spanish to the custodians. The custodians became confident enough from the training to call CHEA when they were asked to perform an illegal service.

For example, in 2013, custodians at at Cherry Hill High School East were directed by  administrators to clean up mold. They were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not carry out the directive even though they lacked training and protective equipment.

Ways a Health & Safety Committee Can Organize

  • Document problems, involve members in documentation.
  • Research issues, including obtaining any monitoring results and records of past problems and fixes.
  • Consult building reps regularly.
  • Educate each other and staff on problems, regulations, and solutions by attending conferences, seeking expert training and advice through NJEA, and reading health and safety materials.
  • Mobilize students, families, community groups, elected officials, media and other allies.
  • Decide on clear demands to administration.
  • Follow up when demands are not met.
  • Negotiate and enforce contract language on health and safety.
  • Assist sick and injured workers with treatment and compensation.
  • Participate in inspections by state agencies such as PEOSH.

CHEA officials, in conjunction with NJEA organizing specialist Thomas Hardy and New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) industrial hygienist Diana Crowder confirmed that the custodians should not do the work. Cherry Hill UniServ field representative Nancy Holmes immediately contacted an NJEA lawyer, who in turn called New Jersey Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH). That agency told administrators they had to hire a contractor for the work. As a result, the work was done safely and no one’s job was lost. The custodians continue to reach out whenever they have concerns.

Steps to organizing a Health and Safety Committee

HSCs often begin when a problem, like water and mold, persists unsolved for years. Concerned members can work with local association officers and the UniServ field representative to get things going. Many districts begin by surveying members about problems and symptoms, and possibly doing a walk-through inspection, including taking pictures of problem areas.

An HSC can be district-wide with representatives from each school, can be developed in individual schools, or both. It should include representatives of all bargaining units. HSC members do not need to be experts on health and safety. They can learn from NJEA experts, consultants, conferences and written materials, described in the sidebar.

Winning improvements makes the school healthier. When people work together and problems are solved, staff and students feel better, are more productive, and the local association is more visible and credible. It also helps the local association develop leaders. An active HSC can build lasting alliances with families and allies in the community. Through establishing contract language that establishes procedures and structures for communication, locals can develop a proactive relationship with administration, and shield individuals from retaliation.

For more information

NJEA provides extensive health and safety materials. Look for:

Health & Safety Manual, a detailed guide to addressing forming an HSC, negotiating and local actions; legal rights; information resources; and sample checklists, forms and letters.

The index lists all past health and safety articles in the NJEA Reporter and NJEA Review by topic. Note in particular articles under “Action and winning” and HSCs, including the October 2012 article on Pine Hill and Lindenwold. “Publications” lists brochures, manuals and factsheets.

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Frances Gilmore holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Hygiene from the University of Pittsburgh, and is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.



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For an alphabetical list of past articles on a variety of health and safety issues, see this index.