“What’s wrong with this picture?” Keith Wrightson asked his audience during a kitchen safety workshop at the NYSUT School-Related Professionals Leadership Conference. Wrightson is a health and safety expert with the American Federation of Teachers who travels the country delivering workshops on workplace safety. His audience, mostly cafeteria workers from Syracuse and the Southern Tier, quickly rattled off the safety issues they spotted in the photograph of a school kitchen.
“The oven door is open,” said one person.
“There’re cleaning chemicals by those carrots,” offered another.
The SRPs noted violation after violation: There are potholders on the grill. Cardboard boxes on the griddle. The outlet should have a ground fault circuit interrupter. The produce is being improperly stored. But one important health hazard escaped their notice – and that’s only because it’s invisible: Heat.
Between 2015 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that heat distress caused 175 fatalities across employment sectors. Another 2,700 employees missed work due to heat illnesses during that same period.
“Heat and heat illness is a recognized work health issue,” Wrightson told the workshop attendees. “OSHA recognizes heat as a hazard, and according to OSHA, all hazards must be addressed.”
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the law that formed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety and health hazards, which includes protecting workers from heat-related hazards.
Today, school workers can report workplace hazards to the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, and Wrightson noted that heat-related illness was adopted by PESH and OSHA as a topline initiative in 2022. To beat the heat, the U.S. Department of Energy recently announced the Renew America’s Schools grant program, a $500 million investment to make clean energy improvements in K-12 public schools. These grant funds can be used to update HVAC systems, install new lighting and transition to renewable energy.
Kory Grubham, president of Chenango Valley Support Staff Association, said his cafeteria staff have been told repeatedly that sweltering indoor temperatures are just part of the job. “Our kitchens are unbearable, but the administration tells us it’s just part of working in the kitchen. It can’t be fixed,” he said.
It is a common employer response, but one that still makes Wrightson a little hot under the collar. “If the employer says nothing can be done, that’s just garbage,” Wrightson said. “We know these things can be addressed.”
Inside the Chenango Valley High School cafeteria, temperatures regularly reach the high 80s. Nicole Vanbarriger, a food service worker and member of the Chenango Valley SSA since 2019, said heat exposure has made more than one kitchen employee sick. “People have had to go home because they were going to pass out,” Vanbarriger said. “We brought that up to administration, but they just shrugged and said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be warm in there.’”
The biggest reason for the sweltering heat, she said, is insufficient ventilation. “They have air conditioning on the serving line, but no air conditioning in the kitchen,” Vanbarriger said. “We put fans out, but they don’t do much.”
Heather Shue is a dishwasher in the Beaver River Central School District in Beaver Falls, where the heat is chasing workers out of the kitchen. “The temps in the summer are well over 90 degrees, and there is no fan or circulated air. We are drenched in sweat the entire time,” she said.
Todd Grunert, president of Shue’s local, the Beaver River Non-Instructional Employees Association, said that the heat issue has been raised with the district administration. “We’ve talked about it, but to be honest, nothing has been done,” he said. “They listen to you, but at the end of the day, it comes down to cost.” In the meantime, Grunert said he is investigating more affordable, targeted solutions to alleviate the heat.
Grunert believes state regulations regarding temperature maximums would help – and make good sense. “There is a temperature minimum, but no maximum. It does not make any sense because hot temperatures can do just as much damage as cold temperatures can.”
At the state level, NYSUT has long pushed for setting statewide standards that would compel districts to maintain safe temperatures in school buildings. A bill on this issue is currently sitting in the state Assembly and Senate Education committees and is expected to be re-introduced in the 2023-24 legislative session. The proposed bill would require school districts to tailor-make solutions to alleviate extreme heat conditions in each building when temps hit 82 degrees and require the school to evacuate if the temperature inside hits 88 degrees.
This legislation, combined with the federal funding now up for grabs, may be the carrot and stick approach that finally yields results for members.
“We need to be the ones turning up the heat when it comes to health and safety,” said Ron Gross, NYSUT second vice president, who oversees program services for the union. “Our members deserve better from their employers, and NYSUT will continue to make addressing excessive heat in the workplace part of our legislative priorities.”