By Debra Coyle McFadden

You wake up in the morning and get ready to go to work. You check Facebook and Twitter one last time, say good-bye to your family, and walk out the door. You drive to work like you have a thousand times before and then enter your worksite. The difference on this day is you don’t have the opportunity to go home at the end of the day because you die on the job.

Nationally, 5,190 workers never got to greet their loved ones at the end of the day with a hug and kiss in 2016. That same year, 101 workers in New Jersey were killed on the job, including 14 public employees according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workers’ Memorial Day is an annual day to honor those who lost their lives on the job, suffered a workplace injury or contracted an occupational illness. Workplace violence is a growing and serious threat for school staff as we were all reminded of again this past Valentine’s Day when a gunman killed 17 people, including three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Hazards in New Jersey schools

Hazards in New Jersey schools affect large numbers of people and communities. New Jersey has 1.37 million students and 197,970 staff in 2,516 school buildings in 590 school districts. The state and school districts don’t provide enough money to routinely maintain all these schools or build new ones when needed repairs are left undone. This is especially true in the 31 poorest districts in New Jersey, which depend on the Schools Development Authority funding for capital improvements and emergent repair projects.

Schools are up to four times more densely occupied than many offices, putting heavy demands on ventilation, mechanical, electrical, structural, and plumbing systems and on maintenance and cleaning staff. School hazards include disrepair, poor ventilation, unregulated temperatures, mold and moisture, toxic materials, dust, dirt, germs, pests and pesticides, poor lighting, construction and renovation-related hazards, and environmental hazards from nearby factories, contaminated sites, and bus and truck exhaust. And this list is likely to get longer as extreme weather events and record-breaking temperatures erode or overburden schools.

Workers’ Memorial Day is a time to reflect, mourn and organize.

Unhealthy schools can trigger asthma attacks, allergies, headaches, fatigue, nausea, rashes, and chronic illnesses, more medication use by children and staff, learning and behavioral difficulties, and lower achievement. According to the Healthy Schools Network, 60 percent of children suffer school-related health and learning problems. Asthma is the leading reason why children are absent from school, and asthma is the leading work-related disease of teachers and custodians. The rise in temperature caused by climate change exacerbates lung- and heart-related illnesses, making the unregulated temperatures and poor ventilation an even greater hazard.

“We have conditions in some of our public schools that are intolerable, ranging from extreme temperature variations to crumbling roofs, broken windows and indoor air quality that is very poor,” noted Marie Blistan, president of NJEA at the 2015 Workers’ Memorial Day March.

As we struggle with these school facility health and safety issues, including the rash of tragic school shootings around the country, Workers’ Memorial Day is an important way to honor all staff and students whose lives have been lost or forever altered. It is a time to reflect, mourn and organize.

Spend Earth Day honoring workers

On Sunday, April 22, Earth Day, the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), New Labor and more than twenty endorsing organizations, including NJEA, are holding a Workers’ Memorial Day rally and march in New Brunswick. NJEA President Marie Blistan is slated to speak. The event begins with a rally at 1 p.m. in Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, followed by a march through the streets of New Brunswick.

This event will be a call for action to make our workplaces safer. It will also highlight the connection between climate change and worker health, and how the state can take action to combat climate change.

New Jersey’s climate is already changing—the five warmest years on record have occurred since 1998 and nine of the 15 hottest summers have occurred since 1999. According to a 2017 New Jersey Climate and Health Profile Report produced by Rutgers University, within 50 years the number of days exceeding 90 degrees F will increase dramatically, with an additional 30-40 days in high elevation areas and 60-70 days in lower elevations, including the southern part of the state. Our schools already struggle with extreme temperatures, and this increase in extreme heat could potentially lead to more school closings as overburdened school heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are further strained.

Climate change will also lead to more extreme and more severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods exacerbating, in some cases, already stressed facility conditions. After Superstorm Sandy, roughly half of all public schools in New Jersey were closed and didn’t re-open until two weeks after the storm. Twelve schools remained closed for an extended period of time necessitating the relocation of staff and students.

This Workers’ Memorial Day, we will rally and march to demand healthier and safer workplaces, including action on climate so that we can help prevent future weather disasters.

What local associations can do:

1. Attend the April 22 Workers’ Memorial Day Rally and March in New Brunswick.

2. Review NJEA Health and Safety Facts: Violence in Schools – Guideline for Local Leaders

3. Establish a districtwide health and safety team with regular meetings to proactively address issues.

4. Sign Jersey Renew’s petition at supporting state policy solutions for fighting climate change including to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to advance clean energy, and to secure good jobs and protections for workers and communities.

Debra Coyle McFadden is the assistant director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council and vice president of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Workers’ Memorial Day

Sunday, April 22

Rally and march begin at 1 p.m.

Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple

222 Livingston Avenue

New Brunswick

For more information: Call 609-882-6100, ext. 308


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