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Final Report

of the

NBTA ad hoc Committee

Environmental Health in Schools

Introduction

No single factor is more important to a living organism than the environment in which it is placed. All functions of the organism are completely dependent on its ability to cope successfully with the physical environment, its resources, and its irritants.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the issues facing school children and their teachers as they strive to function effectively in the particular environments of our classrooms and schools.

The classroom environment is a unique "place of work" in that the "employee to workplace" ratio is relatively small (usually 1 teacher per classroom) while the number of persons per workplace space is relatively large (as many as 33 students per class in some cases). The age of persons involved ranges from students 4 years old through teens to adults. These factors alone create unique stresses on the physical environment.

The NBTA, in response to increasing concerns expressed by its members on issues regarding air quality, emergency response, and overall increase in respiratory difficulties of students and teachers, established the ad hoc Committee on Environmental Health in Schools. To ensure a good cross section of information and resources available, the committee included representatives from the Department of Education and WHSCC. Committee members were as follows:

Fred Estabrooks, Branch 1610, Chair
Norm Bowen, Branch 1826
Katherine McGuire Easter, Branch 1228
Nancy Tingley, Branch 0417
Tom Burley, Branch 0820, Director
Ron Breau, Department of Education
Tim O'Connor, Department of Education
Lee O'Blenis, WHSCC

The terms of reference were established as follows:

1. Meet at the call of the Chairperson.
2. Review the literature relevant to the topic.
3. Gather opinions, case histories, and other relevant data on reported cases of environmentally induced illnesses in teachers and/or students.
4. Review relevant policies, protocols, and practices of various government agencies with respect to health and safety in schools.
5. Review policies of other teacher organizations and other jurisdictions in Canada.
6. Review relevant policies and legislation regarding health and safety in the private sector.
7. Develop prototype policy and protocol to address safety and environmental health issues in schools.
8. Present an interim report to the January 1997 Board of Directors.

9. Present a final report and recommendations, including policy and protocols above to the April '97 Board.

The Committee would like to thank those teachers who have provided detailed information to committee members and to NBTA staff for their candid and constructive advice.

In addition, it would like to express its appreciation to Germaine Burns, NBTF Resource Centre Supervisor, who has developed an extensive collection of reference material from jurisdictions throughout North America. This 'file' has been useful in indicating the range of issues, and the potential for response. Much more can be done in the areas of teaching/learning environments and there has been established a solid base of research on which to build.

What Are The Issues The Committee established five major groupings of issues:

1) Environmental sensitivity
2) Maintenance
3) Protocols and Procedures
4) Prevention vs. Response
5) Rights and Responsibilities

The focus throughout discussion was on the importance of providing a safe, secure, and irritant-free environment wherer students can learn and teachers can teach. There is anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers of people in all walks of life are becoming more environmentally sensitive. In most cases, these individuals can avoid many of the circumstances where these sensitivities may be disabling. Students and teachers on the other hand, have little control over their own environments for the majority of the school day. Therefore, they must rely on policy, practice and legislation to ensure the quality of air, the safety, and the comfort of their working environment is assured.

Environmental Sensitivity

Arguably the most rapidly increasing concern among students and teachers regarding the environment is the issue of individuals with environmental sensitivities. While it would be impractical to guarantee an irritant-free environment, there are a number of issues raised which can contribute to the overall improvement of the environment for sensitive individuals. Issues such as declaring "scent-free environments", ensuring the absence of second-hand smoke, and choosing cleaning agents and instructional supplies with consideration of their environmental impact, particularly their off-gassing characteristics, will reduce the overall levels of irritants.

Many of these issues arise simply from a lack of awareness among those fortunate to be relatively insensitive to the irritants. It is incumbent on all involved to raise the awareness of students, teachers and other school staffs and officials to the issues of environmental sensitivity.

Therefore, the Committee recommends that:

1. NBTA in conjunction with the Department of Education and WHSCC develop a series of public awareness projects to publicize the issue of environmental sensitivities, and the concerns about second-hand smoke and various scents.

2. Strict enforcement of smoking restrictions be exercised to ensure that all smoking environments are completely isolated from the rest of the building . (Currently all provincially-owned property has been designated non-smoking so this should not be a major issue.)

3. Maintenance personnel and teaching staffs be made aware of low scent or less volatile alternatives for cleaners, and instructional aids, including laboratory storage chemicals.

Maintenance

A combination of pressures which reduced building and system upkeep, the increased pressure to reduce energy consumption, and the aging process of many of our schools has increased the pressure on maintenance funds forcing the budget process to prioritize building repairs. Ironically, much of the expense for retrofitting has been incurred in buildings of 15-25 years of age. Many of these facilities were built in a time when construction guidelines demanded high energy conservation with lower air exchange rates. The majority of these systems have had to be completely replaced, further reducing available funds for preventative maintenance.

A second issue with respect to maintenance is related to timing of repairs, particularly those projects which have a probability of disruption of the learning environment due to noise, dust or vapors.

The Committee recommends that:

4. All repairs be scheduled so students and teachers are not effected by abnormal noise, dust or vapors.

5. In cases where emergency repairs must be done, every consideration, including closure of parts or all of the building must be given to ensure students and staff are not exposed to construction irritants.

6. Each building should have a maintenance schedule established which is based on manufacturers' recommendations, and a 'work completed chart' established to ensure the schedule is maintained.

7. All maintenance personnel must be trained in proper storage and use of cleaning materials and other solvents, and must be made aware of the importance of minimizing the presence of scents in the school environment.

8. All instruction personnel must have proper WHMIS training.

Protocols and Procedures

It was obvious from the anecdotal reports of members that much can be done to improve the overall communication and procedural aspects of environmental impact issues. More needs to be done to make students, teachers, and parents aware of acceptable limits for environmental variables.

To this end, the Committee has established the School Environmental Health Investigation Protocol (Appendix A) and the document titled "School Emergency Procedure Elements" (Appendix B).

The Committee recommends that:

9. The NBTA accept the School Environmental Health Investigation Protocol.

10. The School Emergency Procedure Elements be distributed in an appropriate form to all schools.

11. NBTA request that NBTF Resource Centre continue to collect pertinent data regarding environmental issues.

Prevention vs. Response

It is the opinion of many NBTA members that much of the difficulty faced in schools, particularly newer facilities, can be traced to design and construction issues. The challenge facing today's facilities is achieving a balance between system operation, personal comfort, and environmental quality. Systems should be as user friendly as possible for both clients and operators, yet maintain the fundamental limits for human comfort and energy conservation. All construction, both renovations and new, should be monitored carefully to ensure the above issues are achievable in any new or renovated facility.

The Committee therefore recommends:

12. A commissioning process be in place for all new construction and renovation work to ensure construction specifications are met.

13. That special consideration be given to ventilation and storage space location for lab chemicals, custodial supplies, and instruction areas such as shops and home economics labs.

14. That all staff be provided with basic instructions on the operation principles and procedures of various environmental systems.

Rights and Responsibilities

The Committee spent a significant amount of time discussing relevant legislation, regulations, policies, and authorities with respect to health and safety in schools.

All public buildings are regulated by the same legislation which controls private industry and are monitored by the same health and safety authorities (WHSCC and the District and Provincial Medical Health officials).

In addition, there are numerous protocols and emergency plans (Appendix C, D) currently available which detail the requirements and procedures for such things as fire safety, maintenance, air quality measurements and responses, and construction guidelines.

The Committee is of the opinion, that while current legislation responds only to health and safety issues, there is a good deal of concern about "comfort" issues such as ambient temperature, light levels, noise levels and other distractions. The Committee, however, recognizes that it would not be practical to legislate rigid "comfort" parameters. To do so would enormously limit the flexibility of activity in the classroom.

It is expected that improved communications between teachers and providers of maintenance services will reduce many of the concerns expressed about "comfort" levels.

The success in applying various policies and regulations rests largely in the knowledge of their existence. Many recently developed protocols have yet to be distributed. Finally, the medical profession must be encouraged be become more involved in research of environmental illnesses.

The committee recommends that:

15. NBTA representatives meet regularly with Department of Education and WHSCC personnel to maintain updated information about pertinent documents, policies and regulations.

16. NBTA provide regular updates through NBTA News or other means regarding school environmental issues.

17. NBTA communicate with the NB Medical Association to express its interest in participating in making information regarding environmental illness more readily available in schools.

18. NBTA continue to monitor complaints from members regarding possible violations of current legislation, as well as concerns regarding "comfort" level issues in classrooms.

Conclusion

The issues surrounding environmental health have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. The NBTA ad hoc Committee on Environmental Health in Schools has tried to deal with the issues as objectively as possible.

As in the case with all issues which affect individual health and well-being, the perception of the response depends substantially on the circumstances of the evaluator.

Those who are most affected by environmental irritants will be the best judges of the ultimate success of the system in dealing with issues. It may be impossible to remove all irritants from the teaching environment, but it must be the objective to approach an irritant-free environment in our schools for the health and safety of our students and our staffs.

One of our main mandates is to raise the awareness of all persons to the issues of environmental impact, and to provide those most affected with sources of information and procedures to find help.

The NBTA ad hoc Committee on Environmental Health in Schools hopes that this report will be a contributing component in the progress toward recognizing the implication of environmental illness as a growing concern in our schools.

We must continue to expand our knowledge about the impact of environmental conditions on the learning environment, and seek ways to respond effectively to that impact

Appendix 'A' - SCHOOL ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH INVESTIGATION PROTOCOL
Appendix 'B' - SCHOOL EMERGENCY PROCEDURE ELEMENTS
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