January 29, 2016

Health and safety committee turns problem solver, truth teller

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
health and safety committee
Caption: THE WRITING'S ON THE WALL. Left to right: Kate Conway, UCATS of NYU; Nicholas Koridis, UUP Stony Brook; and Margaret Sargent, Rochester Teachers Association. Photo by Paul Pecorale.

Members of NYSUT's statewide Health and Safety Committee did their homework today: They used tall paper for their tall orders to address everything from poor indoor air quality and aging infrastructure on higher ed campuses to PTSD in high school students living in impoverished and violent homes or communities. 

The committee members represent numerous parts of the state and brought with them horror stories of schools with mouse droppings, mold, moisture problems, sickening overheated classrooms and more. They brought concern about violent behaviors in schools, bullying and ergonomics. They brought plans. 

"This is one of the most important and enduring ways to connect with families and community," said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who spoke to the committee today at NYSUT headquarters. A former United Federation of Teachers president, she was first a teacher and unionist who helped build up the UFT's health and safety committee with veteran union leader Tom Pappas. 

Extreme indoor temperature issues may be annoying to some but, to asthmatics, they are "life and death," Weingarten said as an example. Engaging colleagues in the campaign to fix health and safety problems in schools and workplaces helps members feel empowered. 

"That is the power in this room," she told committee members. "The great power for the union is as truth teller ... the pride is that the union is the truth teller." 

Weingarten announced to cheers that the AFT joined local and state teacher unions in filing a lawsuit against the horrendous conditions in Detroit's schools; just as UFT did in 1996 in relation to New York City's schools, determining that a landlord would be in violation of building codes if a tenant's living space was that horrible. 

At today's meeting, committee members set starter strategies on how to create member awareness, resource lists, training, communication through email blasts and phones, and how to establish who can assist with these issues.

The leader of a statewide school environmental program demonstrated a new resource that will be available soon on a state Department of Health website. The New York State Clean, Green and Healthy Schools Program was formed in 2012 through a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

Michele Herdt, acting chief of Child and School Health for the state Health Department, said the new website will be available this summer. It is chock full of resources to deal with a variety of concerns, from idling vehicles at schools to ventilation to green cleaning. Tools will be available for teachers as well as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and parents.

health and safety committee
L-R: Marion Evans, Utica Teachers Association and Winsome Browne-Cooke of Hempstead Teachers Association. Photo by Roseanne Alkhatib.