May 2011
April 25, 2011

School nurses are key health, safety advocates

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Nurse Linda Julia of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers Association learned enough at a NYSUT Health and Safety Conference to go back to her district and help fix non-compliant construction concerns that were aggravating illnesses of both students and faculty. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

On a daily basis, school nurses take the pulse of their schools and stay on top of a host of issues, from communicable diseases, stress and chronic illnesses to accidents, injuries and school safety.

To support nurses in that endeavor, NYSUT encourages health professionals to expand their medical kits with a health and safety tool kit.

No need for nurses to reinvent the wheel — the bulk of the kit's contents should be drawn from information collected in their daily duties as watchdogs over the health effects of school construction, or influenza, or inefficient cleaning.

But collecting and sharing that information is key.

"They can use the data to share what they believe is happening in the school," said Michelle Parker, a Labor Relations Specialist in NYSUT's Tarrytown office. Nurses shouldn't be afraid "to share the health and safety information they collect every day. They need to be observant and speak out." A former school nurse, Parker was one of several presenters at a recent NYSUT Health and Safety Conference.

The first step? School nurses should join health and safety committees. This can be a committee run by their local union, a district-wide health and safety committee, or a joint labor-management committee.

"Don't wait to be asked ... offer," said Parker, noting that school nurses don't always promote their expertise.

"School nurses are the medical component for a whole building, for everyone who comes in through the door," said Marisa Ruiz, school nurse for the Rockland BOCES Staff Association.

Step two: Data talks. Nurses can use the information they gather every day when treating different ailments to present to school officials and/or health and safety committees.

"You have to document everything," said Linda Julia, a school nurse with the Half Hollow Hills TA and a member of NYSUT's Health and Safety Task Force. "We write up reports. We know what's going on in the building."

Information gathered as part of tracking an increase in allergic reactions helped Julia realize that table washing in the cafeteria needed to be strictly enforced. Using dirty water or sponges can aggravate allergies, she said.

School nurses can educate the school community through presentations to staff, administrators and health and safety committees. Treating more students with eating disorders, for example, could lead to a presentation to help teachers know what signs to look for and how to strategize.

Step three: Connect with other school nurses.

"I don't get a lot of opportunity to share with other school nurses, especially from a union angle," said Melony Feser, school nurse with the Dunkirk TA.

Making that connection leads to step four: Education.

Julia, who has been a school nurse for 31 years, said it was union involvement that helped her gather enough information to correct school construction problems that were causing many health problems for students and faculty. Attending a two-part presentation at a NYSUT conference, she was educated about the dos and don'ts of school construction.

"Because of the knowledge I (gained) from the conference, we were able to address issues of non-compliance," Julia said.

Improper procedures at her school were causing a spike in asthma and allergy problems so high that students were doubling and tripling their medication, she said. Examples included tar being poured for a roof near an open cafeteria window; and concrete being poured when temperatures were too cold, so construction workers set up heaters.

Concrete dust blew everywhere.

"Education is the key," said Julia. "Professional development needsto include training in health and safety. They get tired of hearing from me, but you know what? Things get done."

Julia noted that school custodians should also be part of health and safety committees. They need to stay up-to-date on changes in procedures and laws.

"School nurses are part of a team to take care of the whole child, and to ensure the health and safety of our buildings for staff and students," said Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees NYSUT's health care professionals.