Kathleen O'Hara, teacher and vice president of the newly affiliated Children's Learning Center United Educators, was awakened by the rights available to workers. She was one of several teachers and education assistants who attended the semi-annual NYSUT Health and Safety Conference from her Nassau County school, which serves students, age 2-21. In the sessions on safety and emergency preparedness in schools, she said presenters "were talking about things we've never even heard about before. We couldn't write fast enough."
As inadequate state budgets continue to wear thin the maintenance of schools and colleges, as well as the people who work there, health and safety problems in the workplace grow. This was evidenced by concerns shared at workshops and by the 91 first-timers who came to the conference this past weekend in Saratoga Springs.
The 162 participants included the highest number of higher education participants to ever attend the conference. Education was provided on radiation exposure in schools from wireless routers and cell phones; tools to reduce stress in the workplace; CPR and First Aid; workplace bullying; and emergency preparedness, among other topics.
"With limited resources in pre-K through 12, higher education and other workplaces, many of you have seen health and safety go down the priority list," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees health and safety for the statewide union. "But problems have not gone away; members are still getting injured and becoming sick because of work. With everything else going on, the last thing they should have to worry about is whether their job is unsafe or unhealthy."
Since unionizing, educators and education assistants at the Children's Learning Center have been able to get cleaning crews back in the building. Classrooms, she said "were filthy," troubled by mice, ants and fruit flies. The school had eliminated the cleaning crew, she said, to save money. Teachers were expected to take out the garbage, which was heavy and smelly because students eat in class.
O'Hara said staff and students have also been made to go into a pool that is green with chemical discoloration. NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Jason Lasky and NYSUT Health and Safety Specialist Wendy Hord have met with members of the United Educators, along with the school-related professionals local — United Educators Standing Together — to get the pool treatment fixed, and will continue monitoring the pool.
Advocates for health and safety are honored by NYSUT at each conference, where the Unsung Hero Award is presented. This year's honoree is the White Plains Teachers Association Health and Safety Committee.
White Plains member Caren Levant, who serves on the NYSUT statewide health and safety committee, went after an AFT grant to help locals start their own health and safety committee. Training was provided to the White Plains TA, led by Kerry Broderick, by NYSUT and AFT. The new joint labor-management committee surveyed members about priorities, including problems such as workplace stress, bullying, security, poor ventilation and communicable disease exposure. Now the committee is working to address these employee concerns.
The WPTA committee is also involved in a multi-year capital construction project in all of the district's schools, adopting and implementing a construction protocol and communication between union building representatives and management in the flurry of building. The committee also created fliers on construction and workplace stress.
Currently, the group is working on a cleaning brochure for classroom staff on working with custodial staff, as well as an informational brochure on bed bugs. At the request of the committee, administrators have also agreed to provide each classroom with a spray bottle of an approved green cleaning product so staff can handle small cleanups without having to rely on products from home.