Published in the September 2014 NJEA Review

Strategies for your Health and Safety Committee

by Frances Gilmore

Overcrowded classrooms can be stuffy and hot and have limited room for activities. They can result in restless, noisy students, making teaching and learning more difficult. Overcrowding in classrooms, as well as in offices and other spaces, may include any or all of the following conditions:

  • Inadequate ventilation, which may result in poor indoor air quality or inappropriate temperature
  • Inadequate floor space for the furniture, equipment and tasks in the room
  • Too many people in a space.

You can work to address these factors through contract language, organizing and sometimes through code adherence.

Codes are of limited use

Recommended classroom occupancy & space

The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) enforces the fire and building codes. Fire codes primarily address adequate exits and hall space to escape in the case of a fire and usually allow a much larger number of occupants than would be appropriate for teaching. If you think that areas of your school are overcrowded, you can request an inspection from your local fire department.

The building code, or Uniform Construction Code (UCC), may be of use in buildings constructed after 1977, especially with respect to ventilation. Each building is subject to the UCC in effect when it was built. Since the UCC was first adopted in 1977, buildings built before that year are not subject to any UCC code.

Buildings constructed in 2006 or later are covered by ventilation requirements incorporated that year into the UCC. In 2009, the 2006 ventilation rates were unfortunately reduced, but are still valuable.

The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has “Facilities Efficiency Standards,” designed for new construction, which are not enforceable, but may be used as guidelines. Appendix A has detailed space and occupancy recommendations by grade level, shown in the graphic above.

If ventilation is inadequate for a room, The Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard, N.J.A.C. 12:100-13, of the Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program, can help.

Its provisions include:

  • Employers must do preventive maintenance and regular scheduled maintenance of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  • When carbon dioxide (CO2) exceeds 1,000 ppm (parts per million) or temperatures exceed the range of 68 to 79 degrees F, the employer must make sure the HVAC system is operating properly.
  • In a building without mechanical ventilation, the employer must ensure that windows, doors, vents, stacks and other portals are in operable condition.
  • The employer must investigate all employee complaints of signs or symptoms associated with building-related illness.

Note that CO2 at building levels is not itself a harmful contaminant, but as a gas we exhale, it is a good indicator of whether or not there is enough outside air to prevent buildup of contaminants, such as perfumes, perspiration and any odor-causing materials in the room.

Also note that if the ventilation system is in working order but does not maintain appropriate CO2 levels and temperature, the occupancy load is too high for the space.

PEOSH should only be used as a last resort. The agency is understaffed and generally responds to employee complaints with a letter to the employer, rather than an inspection.

Get it in the contract

Your best bet is to seek contract language around temperature, ventilation and space. In the meantime, you can use your proposed language to organize and demand relief from the school district.

Contract language could include the following:

  • The four provisions of the PEOSH IAQ standard detailed on the left page.
  • Maintenance of ventilation systems shall include univents.
  • NJEA members will not be required to work in a space, but will be relocated when:
  • CO2 levels are not maintained below 1,000 ppm.
  • Temperature is not maintained between 68 and 79 degrees F.
  • Classrooms have less than 20 square feet per person.
  • A space has neither windows nor mechanical ventilation adequate for the number of people using the space.
  • Occupied areas shall be large enough to accommodate the furniture, equipment and activities conducted in the area.

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

For more information

  • Access the booklet Organizing for Better Indoor Air Quality at http://bit.ly/1kOu9zP.
  • Contact the N.J. Department of Community Affairs Building Code officials at 609-292-7898 and Fire Marshall’s office at 609-633-6106.
  • Contact PEOSH through www.state.nj.us/health/peosh.
  • 2014 Uniform Construction Code, Subchapter 6. Rehabilitation Subcode N.J.A.C. 5:23-6, Table N, p. 158 for suggested outdoor air-change rates, at http://bit.ly/1pW6TPw.
  • 2005 Long Range Facilities Plan: Preliminary Guidelines, “Facility Efficiency Standards,” Page 39, Appendix A. Can be found at http://bit.ly/1ArJv0Y.