Diane Loonan said she came to her first NYSUT Health and Safety Conference years ago with a piece of moldy carpet and a moldy piece of ceiling tile. She wanted answers about the working conditions affecting her and her colleagues.
Today, Loonan - a teacher who is president of the Watertown Educators Association - is chair of the NYSUT Health and Safety Task Force. Over the weekend, she welcomed more than 200 teachers, school nurses, School-Related Professionals and teachers' aides to the NYSUT conference in Saratoga; more than 100 of them were first-timers.
The newcomers and veterans were spurred to attend by a quest for more information about improving working conditions - addressing issues ranging from safety in the throes of man-made and natural disasters, to school violence, to safe cleaning, to how to engage a disruptive student. NYSUT conferences provide educational workshops led by professionals in each area of expertise.
In a school setting, health and safety concerns reach far and wide, from dirty floors and moldy ceilings to basic first aid and shielding students from harm. Attendees learned about the importance of documentation for health and safety concerns, including a written complaint form.
"You are our major voice on this issue," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president overseeing health and safety. Last year, NYSUT offered 105 health and safety workshops throughout the state, providing educational opportunities for 1,500 members, she reported. Additionally, NYSUT answered 250 specific requests from local unions for help in resolving health and safety problems in their districts.
Conference participants aired concerns about unsafe temperatures in classrooms and learned about the importance of member surveys in ascertaining health and safety concerns. They learned steps to get problems resolved. They were able to share new concerns in the wake of the Sandy Hook, Conn., school shootings, which has resulted in many schools revamping their security plans.
"The tragedies of Superstorm Sandy and Sandy Hook remind us of how important it is to bring skills back to your workplace," Donahue said. Prevention, preparedness, response and recovery are the four cornerstones of a safe and healthy building.
She called on NYSUT members to lend their voices in the call for passage of the New York State Workplace Violence Protection Act so that schools are included and defined as places of work. NYSUT members can get active on the Member Action Center; by building community coalitions; by attending rallies and meetings; and by visiting lawmakers in their home offices and on lobby days.
"I came here open-minded to hear all I can and to see what I can bring back to my district," said first-timer Johanna O'Hara of the Port Jefferson Teachers Association on Long Island. She said she was learning about strategic planning, how to anticipate situations and bringing home spreadsheets to help the local union track concerns.
Peter Rupp, crisis intervention worker at the Questar III BOCES, attended the conference for the first time so he could become informed as a new member of his building's health and safety committee.
"I can use this on the job," said Rupp, whose duties include intervening when students argue.
Rupp attended with his wife JoAnne, a member of the Rensselaer Columbia Green Special Support Services Federation who runs the school cafeteria. Since her school serves a small crowd, she makes almost all of the food homemade, from scratch.
"Sometimes the only healthy meal my kids get is the ones I serve," she said.