When school is out, construction begins

By Dorothy Wigmore

It usually happens between school years. Too often, school staff and students pay a price when it’s not done properly. “It” is the construction, demolition or renovation of school facilities.

Hazards are common in any kind of construction work—renovations, additions, and electrical upgrades, among other projects. They can affect those in the school while the work is going on, and those who return in September to start a new school year. Possible hazards include:

  • Dust and debris (e.g., asbestos, lead, construction materials).
  • Noise (can cause hearing and heart problems and interfere with ability to hear others).
  • Chemicals in the air (e.g., from paints, glues, varnishes, roofing materials, new carpets, and furniture)
  • Mold and leaks revealed during construction.
  • Biological hazards, (e.g., bird and bat droppings).

Summer is the season for construction, demolition or renovation of school facilities.

Getting started: Having a health and safety committee makes action easier

A health and safety committee makes it much easier to take action, whether it’s to gather information, analyze it or develop solutions and strategies for problems that come up during construction. Good training helps committee members to be effective.

Structural changes to a school are an obvious project for a committee, and a good reason to organize one. Most NJEA contracts allow for standing committees; health and safety can be one. With representatives from different jobs or sites in the local, a committee provides a safe place to discuss health and safety issues, identify hazards and sort out solutions and strategies to address them. If you have a joint labor-management committee, a union-only one is a great way to prepare for those meetings.

If you don’t have a committee, or the time to organize one now, ask your local president or UniServ field representative to help you prepare for upcoming construction. Consider having a group of union members share the work required.

What steps are involved to ensure a safe return after construction?

Start by asking the principal or superintendent for this information. If you don’t get answers, you have a right to use the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to request it. Your UniServ field representative can help submit a request. A model request form can be found nj.gov/grc/public/request.

Follow up after the construction is completed. Set up a system to report problems or symptoms that may show up, especially in the first few months after work is done. Educate staff about it. If something does come up, use the health and safety committee and the union to get the problems resolved.

“You might want to do a walk-through at the end of the break, so you know for a fact what people will find when they return to the building,” WEC’s Diana Crowder suggests. “If you do one, and see debris while the administration is saying everything’s going to be okay, there’s an opportunity to get it fixed before staff and students return.”

It will take time, but the results are worth it—for school staff, students and learning about how to deal with job-related hazards. The resources listed below can help.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist and activist, now based in Winnipeg, Canada. She has worked with and for US and Canadian unions, occupational health clinics, COSH groups and universities.


  • The state environmental and indoor health site links to online resources of seven New Jersey state agencies and two federal agencies for hazards (e.g., indoor air quality, mold, hazardous substances, and construction dust and noise). bit.ly/environmentindoor
  • N.J. Department of Environmental Protection School Facilities Issues  provides access to government guidance for regulations about school facilities management and operations, health concerns, and indoor air quality. nj.gov/dep/school
  • N.J. Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Program, Renovation & Construction in Schools Controlling Health and Safety Hazards. bit.ly/schoolrenovationnj
  • EPA’s Sensible Guide for Healthier School Renovations bit.ly/epahealthyschoolsguide
  • Canadians for a Safe Learning Environment, Healthy Schools Design and Construction Guide bit.ly/safelearningcanada
  • The Healthy Schools Network School Renovation and Construction Factsheet: What you need to know to protect child and adult environmental health. bit.ly/hsnrenovationfact

Construction checklist

The basic steps the committee or others can take around summer school construction activities are:

  • As soon as possible, find out where construction, demolition or renovations are planned.
  • Ask for information about the time, location, reason, procedures and other elements the project.
  • Request the health and safety program of the construction contract(s) and ensure that the contracts include:

    – Contact information about the contractor’s point person for questions or concerns is posted.

    – Procedures to deal with asbestos and mold before construction begins (regulations spell out the rules).

    – Assurances that exposure to hazards will be prevented by covering heating and ventilation system diffusers; controlling dust, vapors, waste and debris so they do not get loose or in the air; and covering all construction area openings to prevent dust and vapors from leaving the work area.

  • Let the members know about the plans, ask about their concerns and questions, and add them to yours. If you have connections to parents’ groups, do the same with them.
  • Meet with the superintendent and/or principal and your UniServ field representative to present those concerns and questions, and negotiate how to deal with them.
  • Follow-up to ensure issues are dealt with, including check-ins with those in the school during the work.
  • When the work is done, and before school starts, do a walk-around to ensure returning staff and students won’t face hazards as a result of the construction.
  • Have a conversation with those involved about what worked and what could be done differently next time.