By Dorothy Wigmore
“NJEA members have a legal right to safe and healthful working conditions. Your employer, the board of education, is responsible for ensuring that school employees and students are not exposed to hazardous conditions.”
That’s at the top of the NJEA’s health and safety web page.
Legal rights are one thing. Life on the job is another. After all, those rights are the results of struggles and sacrifices by those on whose shoulders we stand. Can the two be bridged? If so, how?
For every workplace, that bridge is built on activism. Over the years, these columns have provided examples of NJEA members pushing back, taking action and using their rights and creativity to get hazards fixed or prevent them from harming school staff and students in the first place.
Whether it’s mercury in gym floors, moldy spaces, lousy air, pesticides or chemicals in the lab or art room, New Jersey’s health and safety law (the Public Employees’ Occupational Safety and Health Act or PEOSH) doesn’t always apply directly. That’s where creative use of the law’s “general duty” clause and other rules matters.
Ideas about identifying and tackling hazards don’t fall from the sky. Success requires support and resources.
NJEA provides support in different ways and now has two key resources to back that up: its Health and Safety Manual and the Health and Safety in the Review booklet, released at this past October’s health and safety conference. The how-to manual—online for easy access—has updated links. The booklet of recent Review articles complements the manual with stories about how activists have tackled specific hazards (especially in the pandemic), with extra resources and recommendations for health and safety committees and locals.
A textbook for tackling school health and safety
“It’s a textbook of sorts,” says Allen Barkkume with New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC). The organization provides health and safety resources and help for NJEA and its members.
“It’s high quality information with basic principles directly geared to health and safety in schools, with union health and safety committees and activists in mind,” Barkkume adds.
Those committees are essential players in schools. The manual provides guidelines about setting them up and what they should do—like walk-throughs, reviewing records and relevant board policies and member surveys. Part IV includes checklists, forms and sample letters for these efforts.
“We used those checklists for our walk-throughs and other forms to report things needing repair,” says Nikki Baker, NJWEC’s Healthy Schools Now organizer. She’s talking about her days as a special education instructional assistant and union activist in the Paterson Public Schools District.
“Reporting injuries or illnesses is a big issue,” she says.
Reported illnesses and injuries are supposed to show up on the employer’s “300 logs.” There’s a whole subsection about them in Part IV of the manual, along with an incident report form, a filled-in log example and sample requests related to logs and reports. There’s also information about filing workers’ compensation claims.
The logs are great sources for committees to see patterns in reported harm. The statistics can be used creatively. For example, body or workplace maps can be marked up with categories of injuries or illnesses using color-coded sticky dots. Plastic layers can be added for different years or months. They become evidence when pushing for solutions.
The manual’s legal rights chapter makes it easier to report hazards behind the harm. There’s a whole subsection about when and how to use PEOSH and getting chemical hazard information through the Hazard Communication standard and the state’s right-to-know law.
Solving problems takes more than “air sucking”
U.S. standards for job-related hazards—like noise, mold, toxic materials or other airborne hazards including the SARS-CoV-2 virus—are woefully inadequate. Many haven’t been updated since the 1970s and 1980s; others just don’t exist. Understandably, people often don’t know this and think measurements are needed to make their case.
“It’s often the last thing you need,” Barkkume says. Industrial/occupational hygienists like him are trained to do air measurements. But they can do more. Barkkume and other NJWEC hygienists help NJEA members connect a hazard and its harm, do walk-throughs and propose solutions. To them, it’s “fix the hazard, not the worker,” aiming for prevention or hazard elimination. For chemicals, that could mean “informed substitution” with nontoxic or much less hazardous products or methods. (See the OSHA resource.)
Before demanding measurements, check Part V of the manual about the pros and cons of “sampling”—measuring. It’s focused on common school hazards like air quality, mold, asbestos and lead, with questions to ask about why and how sampling could be done.
Member surveys might provide the information you need. The manual has a sample air quality survey and forms to make a complaint that could be based on the survey or members’ reports of hazards, injuries or illnesses. (A booklet article has more details about reporting and documenting hazards and harm.)
If the district hires a consultant to do measurements, locals should demand consultants interested in solving hazards. The manual also lists what to look for in their reports.
The booklet has more examples for committees. The articles cover everything from ventilation to stress to equity issues in the pandemic, and how to deal with heat and cold, violence and pesticides. There are examples of successful union efforts and always recommendations for committees and/or locals with relevant resources.
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.
NJEA Health & Safety Manual
Health & Safety in The Review
The booklet is available at NJEA’s health and safety conferences and at the NJEA Convention. Every health and safety article ever published in the Review can be found, sorted by category, at the URL below.
Transitioning to Safer Chemicals: A Toolkit for Employers and Workers