April 2013 Issue
March 28, 2013

Health and safety motto for members? Be prepared

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: PSC member Diane Menna in a workshop on strategic planning. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr..

Requests for emergency preparedness review and training have risen "exponentially" since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Superstorm Sandy, said Dave Clapp, health and safety specialist for Questar BOCES in Columbia County. "There has absolutely been a shakeup."

The vulnerability of schools and those who work and learn in them has led to many concerns about prevention and preparedness. Health and safety specialists say much needs to be done to make schools the safest they can be.

NYSUT members should be asking questions that, ordinarily, might not seem important:

Do you know what is in the buildings next to your school, hospital or workplace? Do you know what kind of companies are located there, and what they do? Are you near railroad tracks, a subway system or gas station? What's the evacuation plan if the school has only one road for egress?

Questar BOCES once had to be evacuated because chemical smells had drifted to the school building after a nearby transformer recycling company, which analyzes PCBs, had a problem.

A train derailment in Madison County once toppled 30 cars carrying liquid propane — less than a half mile from an elementary school.

For one NYSUT teacher, the only emergency preparedness plan her school has is a set of flip charts posted in only some of the offices. The campus has yet to have a drill.

"It concerns me greatly because we haven't had emergency preparedness training yet," said Ellen Goldstein Lynch, a faculty member at Fashion Institute of Technology and member of United College Employees.

"FIT has always been listed as one of the top 10 safest schools in the nation," said UCE President Roberta Elins. "But in this day and age we need to ensure students, faculty and staff remain safe. It is totally in our interest to be pro-active."

These stories and concerns were raised during NYSUT's annual Health and Safety Conference last month, which took a hard look at the safety of our work environments.

"Our concern for workplace health and safety is critically important," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health and safety, stressing how vital it is to have "prevention, preparedness, response and recovery plans."

She said NYSUT provided 105 health and safety workshops throughout the state last year; the workshops were attended by 1,500 members. Another 250 requests for specific problems were handled by Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist.

Clapp, along with Laura Sahr, emergency planning liaison for the state Department of Education, said that hazards can originate from anywhere and anyone — from armed intruders to mother nature to technological or industrial accidents to infrastructure failures.

"You have to look at the building with a threat assessment," said Clapp.

Schools can contact their local BOCES health and safety coordinator to provide training.

Since the Sandy Hook shootings, Questar BOCES added new "front office training," so people at the entrance to the school know how to better assess school visitors. Behavioral therapists are teaching greeters and front office personnel how to identify behaviors of concern. The windows, exteriors and the physical features of the building are also examined.

Clapp and Sahr asked teachers and staff to consider many other possible problems. If the wind is blowing chemicals, you may need to shut down the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and you may need to evacuate. And ask: Does your school have a plan to do that?

Schools and other workplaces should have staff practice preparedness on scenarios likely to occur in a particular location.

Faculty and staff also need to urge school administrators to attend to thorough emergency preparedness. Seminars, tabletop exercises in which faculty and staff enact hypothetical scenarios to determine who responds at each stage of a crisis, or supervised operation-based drills that can include local fire and police departments, are all useful.

Sahr also recommends that schools or facilities take steps to safeguard equipment and documents before a disaster strikes:

  • Photograph school-owned facilities, vehicles and critical contents, including computers and kitchen equipment.n Document all contracts and records.
  • Do not store records in the basement. They are subject to flooding in natural disasters.
  • Store records off-site; most can be put on a flash drive.

Additionally, lead school personnel should know where records are stored, and where copies of the emergency plan are stored.

It is also important, both Clapp and Sahr say, for schools to plan for an interruption lasting more than a day or two, or even longer. Districts need to be able to discern, for example, if a business office can be set up off-site and how best to communicate with parents and staff.