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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Health and safety: Employers are failing

by Mark Keelan

The most significant of employer responsibilities under the Workers Compensation Act is the duty to ensure the health and safety of all workers. This includes the obligation to make workers aware of all known or reasonably foreseeable health and safety hazards, to remedy workplace conditions that are hazardous to workers, and to provide workers with the information, instruction, training, and supervision necessary to ensure their health and safety. Many school district employers fail to take these responsibilities seriously. A startling example is revealed in a Review Decision by WorkSafeBC review officer Anand Banerjee who states that a school district manager reached "...the threshold of recklessness, which unnecessarily put workers at risk."

In April 2005, during part of the renovation of New Westminster Secondary School, a group of CUPE members was sent in to remove the flooring in a classroom. Classrooms around the project were in full use. The CUPE members were not informed that an asbestos assessment outlined the high probability that there was asbestos in the linoleum. Consequently, no appropriate precautions were taken. At least one worker claims that a district manager told him that there was no asbestos in the room. The manager, who was in possession of the asbestos assessment, blamed the workers for the resulting disaster.

Review Officer Banerjee summarizes events that gave rise to concerns by teachers, CUPE members, and students:

"On the morning of April 26, 2005, a number of workers broke the floor of Room 138 up into pieces and disposed of these pieces out the window. The floor was broken up by hammering with sledgehammers and scraping with chisels. Nails in the floor were removed by grinding. This activity raised a large plume of dust, which wafted down the corridors of the school and into various classrooms (which were in session). A number of teachers and other persons have provided the [Workers’ Compensation] Board with written statements about the extent and character of that cloud of dust. In addition, the Board has obtained video evidence which shows the thickness of that dust cloud. It appears that this dust cloud was significant enough that some of the teaching staff complained about the possibility of toxic material contained therein, and the Board was notified."

As a result of the complaints, WorkSafeBC visited the work site. The responding officers shut down the construction project and sent samples of the linoleum to a lab for testing. Test results confirmed the high concentration, between 25% and 100%, of asbestos in the flooring. The officers wrote several orders requiring the school district to comply with regulations related to asbestos. Subsequently WorkSafeBC imposed an administrative penalty of $52,500 on the district.

WorkSafeBC inspection reports dated May 1, 2006, May 18, 2006, July 20, 2006, and October 5, 2006 all indicate that the district had not fully complied with the 2005 orders. Meanwhile, the district appealed the administrative penalty. That appeal was decided by Banerjee who, in addition to making the comments referred to above, increased the administrative penalty to $75,000. As of the end of January 2007, the district is not in full compliance.

Asbestos-related diseases generally have a latency period of between 10 and 30 years. Workers who encounter a single exposure are far less likely to develop asbestos-related diseases than are workers who have long-term exposures. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that many workers who have had a single exposure to asbestos have developed related diseases. Workers and students at New Westminster Secondary School were put in an extremely dangerous situation and will not know for many years how they may have been affected.

The situation in New Westminster is an extreme example of a school district employer failing to comply with the Workers Compensation Act obligation to ensure the health and safety of all workers. However, examples of other school district employers who have failed in their obligations are too numerous to count. When teachers and other school workers are bruised and beaten as a result of violence, when indoor air quality problems make workers sick, when workers develop musculoskeletal injuries because no attention is paid to ergonomics, their employers have failed them and have broken the law. And, as teachers have been pointing out for years, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions so school districts are failing students as well.

We must make it our collective responsibility to correct our employers’ failures. Under the Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, workers in this province have extensive health and safety rights. Employers have corresponding responsibilities. The New Westminster example, among others, makes it clear that employers are not living up to their responsibilities. By vigorously enforcing our health and safety rights, BCTF members can force employers to change. We owe as much to ourselves and to our students.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF health and safety officer for prevention.