By Dorothy Wigmore
Librarians or administrative staff working during the summer, the state of a classroom in September, and building repairs during the school year are all situations posing construction-related hazards for school staff. Whether it’s renovations, additions, electrical upgrades, or dealing with mercury flooring, mold or ventilation, the activities can affect those in school buildings during the work or after that work is supposed to have fixed a problem.
- Chemicals in the air (e.g., from paints, glues, roofing materials, new carpets or furniture).
- Dust and debris (e.g., asbestos, lead, construction materials).
- Mold and leaks during or because of construction.
Recent federal funding programs have led to lots of construction and renovation activities.
“During the year, there’s usually not much,” says New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) industrial hygienist, Allen Barkkume. “It’s the aftermath of the summer work we usually hear about. Repairs can make things worse, create new problems. It’s not unusual for replaced or repaired roofs to leak somewhere else, thanks to poor quality work. That leads to mold and indoor air hazards.
“Replacing univents might be done room by room at weekends, taking a year to finish,” he adds. “That’s different because the job can be broken down and done when people aren’t around.”
Still, that work may lead to surprises, like asbestos tiles under the devices.
How to prevent problems
Health and safety committees or the local association (if there’s no committee) need an inventory of hazards in and around the school (location, type, seriousness/priority). They also need a log of past issues and how they were addressed.
In fact, an inventory is the law for asbestos. AHERA—the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act—requires the district’s asbestos management plan have an up-to-date inventory. Another important feature: within 60 days of starting work, maintenance and custodial staff must have at least two hours awareness training. (See “More to do” and “Resources” sidebars.)
Any other airborne hazard can be addressed using the state Indoor Air Quality Standard. The district must have a plan and “designated person” to implement it. The document also must explain how the district will ensure good air quality “during renovations and remodeling.”
Whatever the hazards, a running inventory and a history log will help local associations point to possible problems during construction activity. The local and/or health and safety committees can use these documents in discussions about planning for, carrying out and evaluating the activities. Members who work in facilities or maintenance can provide feedback about proposed timelines and realistic ones.
The history log is key for long-standing hazards. Otherwise, there’s institutional amnesia when the only person who remembers things like ventilating the gym with a mercury floor retires.
Follow-up matters too. As Barkkume said, “Just because it got replaced doesn’t mean that the problem’s gone. Committees need to be vigilant.”
His final advice: “Whatever work’s being done, by whomever it’s done, the local needs to know and involve its health and safety committee in reviewing for possible hazards and hassles. They need to know all the parties involved from planning to clean-up and what they’re doing. That’s supposed to be in the scope of work.”
More to do
Health and safety committees can also:
- Use the American Rescue Plan rule that union locals must be at the table for all decisions using that funding: how money is used, who’s hired, specs, etc. If the local hasn’t been involved so far, start now.
- Use a current copy of the asbestos management plan. Ask for plans and reports about completed work.
- Ask the district for “scope of work” documents before any job starts (and whenever you find out about it). Review it. Ask questions about the company’s qualifications for the job, plans to isolate spaces where they work, clean-up, etc. Organize walk-throughs or other check-ups during and after the work is done, with appropriate protections.
- Use the district’s written Indoor Air Quality Standard plan. Remind the district to notify the local association and individuals about any work that may affect the air quality, meet with the “designated person” about their activities, challenge problems involving airborne hazards.
- Request a staffing list, to know who might be in the building(s) when work is to be done—whether it’s weekends, holidays, the summer or another time. Ensure the people on the list know about the work. If there are no protections or inadequate protections in place, take it up with the district before the job starts.
- Always check on clean-up. It’s part of the job. What’s needed once the work’s done? Who’s doing it? How? When? Who’s checking on it?
- When in doubt, local associations should consult their UniServ reps, who can request help from WEC.
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.
AHERA regulations require public school districts and nonprofit schools to:
- Perform an initial inspection in each school to determine whether asbestos containing material (ACM) are present and reinspect every three years.
- Look at the condition or all ACM every six months.
- Ensure that trained and licensed professionals perform inspections and take response actions.
- Develop, maintain, and update asbestos management plans and keep a copy for viewing at the school.
- Provide yearly notification to parent, teacher and employee organizations about the availability of the school’s asbestos management plan and any asbestos-related actions taken or planned in the school.
- Designate a contact person to ensure the responsibilities are properly implemented.
- Provide custodial staff with asbestos awareness training.
“Asbestos killer dust in your school?”
“When School is Out – Construction Begins”
NJ Work Environment Council
“Education and expansion: Model school district policies for protection of staff and students during school construction”
New Jersey Department of Labor
Indoor Air Quality Standard (includes the standard, guidance, documents)