||Volume 14, Number 1, September 2001
Essential services legislation threatens
health and safety
by Lynne Sinclair
Essential services in labour relations was introduced in some sectors like health care and police to ensure that people’s health and safety was not in danger. The Liberal government has turned that on its head by imposing essential services on education. Ironically, designating education as an essential service puts teacher and student health and safety at risk.
Teachers will have to be vigilant this fall about their health and safety because the new legislation threatens our working conditions. In the face of government interference, teachers’ right to bargain essential working conditions is threatened. These conditions include class size, the provision of clean and safe workplaces, adequate time to do our work, and other provisions that must be in place to protect the health and safety of teachers and students. It was only when teachers won the right to strike in 1987 that any of these conditions were placed in our collective agreements where they could be enforced. Prior to that, the few provisions that did exist had no teeth. Contracts only addressed monetary items, not those that affected our working lives and our health.
History has proven that all-out strikes, taken when bargaining has broken down, quickly resolve disputes in education because of the pressure put on both parties. With limited job-action opportunities, disputes are likely to fester and relationships founder.
Research shows that stressful workplaces have more accidents. If teacher workloads remain at unacceptable levels, if teachers’ rights are stripped and relationships sour, workplace injuries and illnesses will increase. If class size is not reduced, if preparation time is not increased, if staffing ratios are not established, teacher health and safety is at risk and the learning of students is threatened. If teachers are not respected and paid a fair salary, morale suffers and so does health and safety.
Don’t fall into fall
The number one WCB claim by teachers in B.C. is caused by falling, either on the same level or from a height. Our members have been seriously injured in accidents caused by the employer’s failure to ensure that our workplaces are healthy and safe. Our workplaces are busy, stressful, and tense. The pace of our working lives contributes to the increasing number of WCB claims for workplace injuries and illnesses (15% increase from 1995 to 1999). Peak time for injuries is the fall, just before Winter or Spring break, and near the end of the school year.
In one case, a teacher’s chair collapsed, causing significant back, neck, and shoulder injuries; the chair had been reported as broken many months ago and was supposed to have been replaced. In another, a teacher fell on a very slippery school hallway, tearing the tendons of her knee and causing injuries that will require hip surgery. Teachers who have no access to ladders or who have no time to get a ladder, fall from desks or chairs as they attempt to hang learning materials or display lesson aids and student work. Cutting corners due to lack of time and trying to do too many things at once leads to injuries and illnesses.
Stripping rights creates more stress
While physical traumas are more easily dealt with in the healthcare system and by WCB wages and benefits, psychological traumas are just as devastating to teachers but are more difficult to address. The cumulative stress of excessive workloads, large class sizes, class composition, and lack of respect can cause or contribute to serious health concerns such as sleeplessness, depression, and even chronic illnesses such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis or cancer. The stripping of teacher bargaining rights will only add stress and threaten our health; it will not solve our problems.
Germs go back to school, too
Germ warfare will begin all over again this fall—flu, colds, coughs, chicken pox-you know the list. Remember that these are WCB claims and must be filed. We’re stressed, our immune systems are affected by that stress, and we become more susceptible to those germs the students and other staff bring to school.
Where to get help
School health and safety committees must be in place. Our members on committees are trained and should be able to help. The BCTF has a health and safety training program that offers workshops to committee members. For further information, contact Peggy Wilson (email@example.com) or me (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the BCTF.
If a claim is being filed, contact your local president for assistance. The Federation provides assistance on all claims, including advocacy for any claims-related appeals and a range of advice on either claims or prevention. For claims assistance, contact George Taylor (email@example.com) in the Health and Safety Department at the BCTF.
Lynne Sinclair is a BCTF health and safety officer.