April 2013
March 28, 2013

Union's action improves buildings

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Judy Muller, Pine Bush TA vice president and head of the union's health and safety committee, takes samples of tapwater for testing.

Judy Muller, Pine Bush TA vice president
and head of the union's health and safety
committee, takes samples of tapwater for
testing.

When a classroom in the Pine Bush school district in Orange County flooded last month, educators from the union's health and safety committee quickly investigated. They made sure the school repaired the roof, cleaned up the mess and that nothing was growing where water had pooled on the roof.

Such concerns are handled routinely now, but that wasn't the case almost two years ago.

Pine Bush Elementary School teachers, returning in August 2011 to prepare their classrooms for their new students, were alarmed when they found mold covering windowsills, desktops and books.

The two-story, brick school, built in 1991, has a history of health and safety concerns. It's located in an area with poorly draining soil and overgrown trees. Teachers reported respiratory infections, chronic sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. They noted how many on staff had suffered from cancer. They expressed concern about building maintenance as custodial staff dwindled because of budget cuts.

Carla McLaud, president of the Pine Bush Teachers Association, was called on for help, and the union set in motion a plan that empowered members and ultimately improved conditions.

First, the union, which is a graduate of NYSUT's Local Action Program, ensured classrooms were properly cleaned, and teachers were moved to other areas while the work was being done. McLaud also tapped into NYSUT's resources, including information and guidance provided by the statewide union's health and safety specialist, Wendy Hord.

"NYSUT takes workplace health and safety issues very seriously," said Vice President Kathleen Donahue. "Our members and the students they serve deserve to work and study in environments that are clean and safe. The Pine Bush TA members are to be commended for their efforts and for setting a great example."

NYSUT helped the local form a plan and create the health and safety committee; a dozen TA members volunteered. They met with their NYSUT labor relations specialist and school administrators to share concerns and offer solutions. It led to a successful campaign to test water and air, clear away trees and debris, repair leaks and clean ventilation systems.

"We all felt that the situation needed to be investigated. We took ownership," said Judy Muller, TA vice president, who became head of the union's committee.

The committee discovered that classrooms were full of mold that August because the vents had been shut off for the summer, blocking air from circulating.

The committee worked with the state Department of Agriculture's monitoring programs division to set up water testing. DOA sent water kits with tests for more than 130 pesticides and metabolites.

"I tested all seven buildings' tap water," said Muller. "Four buildings use a town water system. The other three buildings use two wells." All the water sources tested fine.

Next, the TA contacted Arthur Lange, Orange County BOCES health and safety coordinator, to test the air quality. New air conditioning units were added to classrooms that had poor ventilation. The committee also worked with the Orange County Health Department and, to their relief, discerned that a cancer cluster did not exist because the kinds of cancers several staff experienced were different.

"Working in a healthy environment is crucial to success in any profession," Muller reminded colleagues in the union's newsletter, "and the union is here to help you resolve concerns."