January/February 2021 Issue
December 19, 2020

Union voice imperative when navigating workplace hazards

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Educators working in close contact with students, including those with special needs, are often exposed to spitting and crying, which generate airborne particles. Since the coronavirus now sweeping the world is most potent when airborne, there are serious concerns that unions are helping to resolve.

Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist, explained that concerns should be brought to administrators, who must share them with mandated health and safety committees. Unresolved concerns can generate a complaint to the Public Employee Safety and Health bureau, run by the New York State Department of Labor. The agency maintains respiratory protection, sanitation, hazard communication and record keeping standards. Complaints falling outside those regulations can be filed under a general duty violation.

Mike Piccolo, Southern Westchester BOCES, said there are SRP staff who work closely with students with special needs who may not be able to wear masks and can be yelling, crying and spitting — all generating airborne contaminants.

Not enough face shields have been provided to staff.

“School staff working in close proximity with unmasked students should be provided with N95s (masks) and included in the school’s respiratory protection program. This is not a requirement based on state guidance, but it is best practice,” Foley said. “Unfortunately most are ignoring this even though we all now know COVID-19 is airborne.” Custodians may also be using chemicals that require a respirator.

SRPs who provide assistance with toileting and breathing apparatus are also at more risk.

Administrators should be approached about getting proper personal protective equipment. If you’re not receiving an adequate response to a complaint and it is a PESH violation, speak to your local union president about filing a PESH complaint, Foley said.

The State Education Department also mandates a health and safety committee for each district; it must include labor and parents.

“NYSUT helped us form a health and safety committee, and it’s so helpful now,” said Tammy Hughes, East Syracuse-Minoa Teaching Assistants Association. Forming a labor- only committee is key, Foley said, to organize concerns before they are brought to the district committee.

Union power can help with many concerns. Rhonda Harrell, Ossining Support Staff president, said her local was successful getting plexiglass workplace shields where needed; face shields for some support staff; and gowns and gloves for those assisting with toileting. The OSS was also able to get extra pay for security workers and TA’s doing additional COVID-19 related work.

Harrell’s advocacy began with a request to be part of a school reopening team.

“Because of a NYSUT webinar, I learned that we should have a seat at the table,” she said. “I want support staff to know their voices will be heard.”

Workplace essentials

If your school identifies that a teacher, school nurse, or SRP needs a respirator, then they need to make sure they are properly fit tested by the employer, and instructed in how to maintain it.

  • Sanitizers used in the workplace need dwell time. They cannot be wiped off right away.
  • Soap and hand towels need to be in every bathroom.
  • Be sure administrators are keeping accurate records. According to Labor Law 27, these must include sicknesses, injuries, etc.
  • If a custodian is provided with a new disinfectant to use, be sure that it is accompanied by training. If teaching staff is asked to disinfect then they must receive the same training and PPE that is provided to the custodial staff.
  • Check to see if the district is maintaining a required cleaning log.
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