Feature

Scratch and Win: Workplace Illness Creates a Leader

Catherine A. Cocchio

For most Canadians, the annual switch from long to short sleeves is a welcome sign of spring. Until recently however, Laurel Liddicoat-Newton dreaded the thought of baring her arms and legs in front of staff and students.

Liddicoat-Newton is the learning resource teacher at Lansdowne Elementary School in Sarnia. In the fall of 2005 she was reassigned to a classroom in the school’s eight-classroom port-a-pac (eight temporary buildings sharing a hallway attached to the doorway of the main building) and began dealing with a virulent case of hives. For the entire year, long sleeves and long pants helped her maintain some measure of dignity between scratching spells, but the combination of spring showers, warmer temperatures, and an airtight classroom aggravated what had become a chronic condition.

Liddicoat-Newton was well acquainted with environmental concerns plaguing her school’s main building. But she did not immediately suspect that her workplace was the cause of her hives. Curing her condition would eventually require her to lead 13 colleagues in a work refusal.

Workplace Health and Safety Issues have turned Liddicoat-Newton into a health and safety advocate and a leader in her school and in her union. Her involvement dates back to her arrival at the school. “When I moved to a grade 1 assignment at Lansdowne in 2001, my classroom in the main building had an odour. It smelled like tar. I taught in Petrolia for 10 years so I knew the oily kind of smell. Kids came to grade 1 and got nosebleeds. After three years of complaining, I finally got some parents on board,” she says.

The tar smell was most pronounced on days when the temperature rose above 20 degrees. Scheduling air quality testing during periods most likely to produce positive results was next to impossible. Liddicoat-Newton and the parents persisted, and eventually air quality testing confirmed suspicions that she and her students were working in an unhealthy environment. Invasive exploration of the roof and ceiling exposed large clumps of hard tar pitch hidden behind concrete.

As a result, the class was evacuated for two months while the area was cleaned. In the meantime, Liddicoat-Newton became the health and safety representative at Lansdowne. Little did she know how personal this role would become.

“I found mould in my portable in October 2005 but I didn’t put it together with my outbreak of hives until another teacher complained of the same symptoms,” she recalls. “We phoned the board’s health and safety officer, and the board sent technicians to take moisture readings. There was a lot of beeping. When we asked what that meant, the technician told us beeping was bad.”

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