Each September, after social studies teacher Jeanne Eisenschmidt returns to school in rural Southern Cayuga, she is plagued by sinus infections, headaches, a serious asthma condition and allergies to mold and grass.
Once an avid cyclist and runner, Eisenschmidt is less active each year as illness encroaches. She misses several weeks of teaching every year; once it was six months.
Her classrooms have been compromised by decay from ground-level vents, mold and leaking ceilings in a school built almost 50 years ago on swamp land. Water bubbles up from hallway drains after heavy rains. Mice are a problem, too, said Becky Davis, co-president of the 75-member Southern Cayuga Teachers Association with Laurie Waldron.
When the causes of Eisenschmidt's illnesses were dismissed as merely weather-related, she turned to the Occupational Health Center located in Syracuse, one of 10 such clinics statewide.
Eisenschmidt is among the hundreds of school employees who seek treatment at the clinics for workplace-related illnesses and medical conditions, such as asthma and allergies. Schools are the No. 1 workplaces associated with indoor air quality respiratory problems, according to the New York State Department of Health.
The need for occupational health clinics is more important than ever: Fewer doctors accept workers' compensation cases because of new treatment and disability guidelines instituted in 2007, along with delayed reimbursement, especially for occupational disease cases.
New York's network of occupational health clinics was created 25 years ago after a statewide committee of unionists, academics and occupational health activists was formed "to develop a response to people in New York state getting sick and dying from workplace diseases," said Dr. Michael Lax. At the time, 5,000-7,000 people died each year from occupational illness and that was "almost surely a gross understatement," he said. Lax, a member of United University Professions, NYSUT's largest higher education affiliate, has worked at the Occupational Health Center for 22 years. Creating the clinics, he said, "was really a beautiful organizing effort."
Clinic staff operates as a team: Doctors, nurses and social workers listen, educate and assess. They refer patients to specialists. They can help with a return to work or, in the case of a more serious illness, help file a workers' compensation claim. Certified industrial hygienists, with permission from the workplace, visit properties to test, prepare reports and pinpoint problems. They also provide training to groups of employees.
"Treatment and training of so many teachers and School-Related Professionals in occupational illness and injury prevention enables thousands of members to be helped," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees health and safety for the union.
The Syracuse clinic, part of SUNY Upstate Medical Center, serves the Syracuse, Binghamton and Canton regions and employs nine UUP members. It has treated 360 school support staff, teachers, and building and grounds personnel since opening.
School employees can become sick from building renovations, ongoing leaks, wood sealants, chemicals emitted from new carpeting or labs, or poor indoor air quality.
"In addition to the health of teachers, student health and well-being are also impacted by these conditions," said Greg Siwinski, industrial hygienist and UUP member.
The best protection, he said, is for employees to be aware of their work environment, and to work with their local union and with their school's health and safety committee.
"Many of our members never had asthma before working in a school," said Wendy Hord, NYSUT's health and safety specialist. She refers members to occupational health clinics and brings in industrial hygienists for educator training at NYSUT conferences.
The clinics operate on an $8 million to $9 million annual budget, Lax said. Funding comes from a small assessment on employers based on their workers' compensation premium paid. The state DOH then funds the regional centers through a grant process and oversees the operation of the clinics. Clinics also receive funding from fees for industrial hygienists' training and screening services.
"The costs of occupational disease are huge," Lax said. Many workers fail to come forward when they are injured or ill because they fear jeopardizing their job. "But if you catch it early a person can improve. If left unchecked, a person can develop reactions to other things, such as cleaners, and then it becomes a deeper problem," Lax said.
For Eisenschmidt, the clinic has been a lifeline in a 17-year struggle to first understand, and then treat, her conditions. She meets with the clinic's social worker to help her through the stress and emotional upheaval of her declining health.
Eisenschmidt credits the clinic for helping her to see the correlation between her respiratory illnesses and the problems with her physical school environment. Recommendations have been made to improve ventilation, use an air purifier, avoid the use of harsh bleach for cleaning, and avoid mowing the grass when classes are in session. The school followed through on most of the recommendations, Eisenschmidt said.
The school's deteriorating condition was "on the agenda at every single meeting last year" between the local union co-presidents and administrators, Davis said. She has encouraged other members to seek medical attention for medical problems. The union is also surveying staff about conditions.
DID YOU KNOW
The New York state Occupational Health Clinic Network has served 2,820 service industry patients who work in managerial and professional specialty occupations, according to a report covering 1988-2003. The patients included 771 teachers, 669 in professional specialties and 525 in health treatment occupations.
FOR MORE INFO
Mold and chemical or exhaust fumes can taint indoor air quality. Chemical exposure can cause neurological damage. Noise exposure can cause hearing loss. Muscular stress developed over time can cause injury. Enclosed spaces with no ventilation can create respiratory problems.
If your work space makes you feel sick — or if you're injured on the job — assistance is available from one of New York's occupational health clinics.
To find a clinic, go to www.health.ny.gov/environmental/workplace/clinic to learn about locations in the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Central Adirondack, Mid-Hudson/Eastern, Lower Hudson, New York City and Long Island regions.
For an appointment or information, call 800-432-9590 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. You do not need a doctor's referral.