Health and Safety: It's About You

Ruth Ann Morley

When you say Occupational Health and Safety to education workers, they start talking about what they do to keep their students safe. The focus on students is admirable, but it misses the point. Occupational Health and Safety is about workers.

Step back and look at your school from a different perspective. Look at it from the point of view of the worker. What affects you and your health and safety? What affects the health and safety of your colleagues? What can you do to help?

Consider the Following Scenarios ....

A TEACHER IS GOING THROUGH A CUPBOARD IN HIS CLASSROOM and finds powder covering a pile of papers on a shelf. While brushing the powder off, he gets it all over himself, including in his eyes, nose and mouth. Because the cupboard had been built around radiator pipes coming through the wall, an asbestos pipe elbow remained hidden until it disintegrated over the teaching materials.

A TEACHER IS WORKING AFTER SCHOOL IN HER PORTABLE BEHIND THE SCHOOL. The custodian has had problems with students coming into the building at night. He has been told by his maintenance supervisor to lock all the school doors, except the front door, by 4:30 p.m.. The teacher leaves for home at 6:30 p.m., by which time it is dark. She is unaware that the school's back door is locked and that the outside lights had been recently broken by vandals. To reach her vehicle, the teacher must walk to the parking lot in front of the building. A small gang of teenagers is hanging out at the back of the school. The gang comes to surround the portable as the teacher starts to leave.

THE SHELVES HOLDING GYM EQUIPMENT IN THE STORAGE ROOM WERE HARD TO REACH. As a result, teachers routinely stood on a chair to reach what they needed. Stepping on the chair was so automatic that staff were surprised when a teacher fell and broke her ankle. The injured teacher was off work for months. Her collective agreement had a half sick day deducted to top up WSIB payments. It was the teacher's retiring year. She had hoped her 200 accumulated sick days would all count toward a service gratuity.

A TEACHER IS WORKING WITH A DEVELOPMENTAL STUDENT WHO IS USUALLY CO-OPERATIVE BUT HAS OCCASIONAL AGGRESSIVE OUTBURSTS. On one occasion, the student tries to attack another student. When the teacher restrains the student, she is bitten on the chest and the skin is broken. The teacher doesn't want to cause problems for the student and her parents, yet was amazed that such a small student could cause such a bad bite. She's embarrassed she let it happen and doesn't tell anyone of her injury. Months later, when the longterm medical consequences of the severely infected wound are a reality, WSIB has no record of the incident.

A TEACHER PLANS A SKATING TRIP TO THE LOCAL ARENA. All the necessary high-risk field trip forms are complete. Everyone is wearing a helmet as required. When his students beg him to join them on the ice, the teacher does so with enthusiasm that belies the fact he has not been on skates for 10 years. Later, after surgery for a shattered bone in his left arm, he complains he is getting old. His staff colleagues send flowers. No one calls the Ministry of Labour to report a critical injury because it was a skating trip injury, not something that happened at work.

These scenarios are typical of worker health and safety issues that occur in schools. In each case, communication, knowledge, following procedures and specific training would stop similar incidents from recurring. Reviewing every incident improves our response and helps to prevent recurrence. That's why we have Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC), one of whose duties is to make recommendations on preventing incidents and injuries to workers. Your JHSC works for you and focuses on keeping you safe.

How can you help? You don't have to be an expert on the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Just keep your eyes and ears open. The most important task for you, and every worker, is reporting. This is not just a moral obligation; it is also a legal responsibility. Every worker must report, immediately, any health and safety hazard they notice to their immediate supervisor. Obviously, knowing a problem exists is the first step toward addressing it.

If this process is followed, the Joint Health and Safety Committee should find no new problems when it inspects the site. If your health and safety rep is finding things to record, this reporting process isn't working. Workers aren't reporting; management isn't responding.

Make your reports about health and safety issues in writing to your immediate supervisor. Keep a copy for yourself. Give your supervisor a reasonable time to respond. If your issue is not addressed in a reasonable time, is not addressed to your satisfaction, or is not responded to, or if your administrator is not sure what to do, it is your right to refer the matter to your Joint Health and Safety Committee. If the JHSC cannot resolve your concern, it can ask the Ministry of Labour (MOL) for assistance.

An MOL inspector may investigate the situation and order your board to correct the issue. Remember. The process for resolving a concern starts with you, the worker.

How Is Your Health and Safety Awareness?

  • Who is your health and safety representative?
  • Do you know the members of your Joint Health and Safety Committee?
  • Have you seen the asbestos report for your school? Do you know the locations of all asbestos and other designated substances?
  • Does your board have an accident/incident reporting form? Can you obtain it? Do you use it whenever you have a workplace incident?
  • Who are the "first aiders" in your building?
  • Do you know where the first aid kits are?
  • Do you take a portable first-aid kit on field trips?
  • Do you know where to find a copy of the Occupational Health and Safety Act?
  • Do you report any hazard you are aware of?
  • Do you know your board's policies that address health and safety issues (e.g., harassment policy, violent incidents and air quality?)
  • Have you received WHMIS training?
  • Have you received specific training for your type of work (e.g., CPR)?
  • Do you review all Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) before using a product in the workplace?
  • Do you refrain from bringing into the workplace commercial products that are not part of the board's WHMIS?
  • Are you familiar with your school's Emergency Preparedness Plan?
  • Do you ask questions when you don't know how to do a task at work? Do you request training?

ETFO has just released Take Every Precaution Reasonable: An ETFO Guide to Occupational Health and Safety in Schools . This handbook is intended to help you keep your worksite safe; it is available from shopETFO for $12 plus tax.

Ruth Ann Morley is a teacher with the Thames Valley DSB. She has served on ETFO's Health and Safety Committee, and as a deputy parliamentarian at the Annual Meeting.


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