What Can Parents Do About School Environmental Health Concerns?
These are suggestions to help provide safe and healthy learning environments for the children of Nova Scotia, but much can be valuable to other jurisdictions. These suggestions are intended for information purposes only and do not guarantee that changes will be made within your child’s school.
1. Discuss your concerns over your child’s health with the classroom teacher, as many issues can be solved at that level.
2. Speak with the school principal. S/he has responsibility for the welfare of those in the school. Discuss changes in routines or conditions over which s/he has control. Principals can request action of the appropriate board staff for such things as repairs. Also, for example, in Nova Scotia many principals are making sure that potentially hazardous maintenance work, such as painting, caulking, floor stripping, etc., is done during vacations or with strict isolation techniques.
3. Under N.S. Department of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, every workplace must have a Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) (or an OHS representative if the workplace is small) If your school has no JOHSC committee, one should be formed. The Act specifies that committees decide at the workplace level what committee makeup can best serve that particular workplace, within the general requirements of the Act. (Coal mines have very different needs from daycares, but both are workplaces.) Although the Education Act includes protection of the children, the protection is indefinite and seems inadequate as compared to the protection afforded workers under N.S. Labour Law. Fortunately, although the JOHSC’s primary purpose is to protect the health and safety of workers, provisions to protect others who may find themselves in a workplace (including children and volunteers) “are presently included in Section 13 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act where the employer is identified as the party responsible to ensure a reasonable standard for the protection of Health and Safety of persons at or near the workplace.”
Also, if the JOHSC committee members feel that non-employee, non-employer members would benefit their committee, there is nothing under Labour Law to prevent parents or others from being asked to serve as long as both employer and employee sides agree. These members would technically occupy employer seats, and the 50% employee rule must be adhered to. There are no restrictions on voting rights imposed by the Department. Labour Department officials have agreed that parents on JOHSCs tend to make the committees very effective. Often the parent rep. is a PTA member who makes appropriate reports between the committee and the PTA. Remember that it is primarily a staff committee, but much that protects the staff also protects the children.
There is much information available to JOHSCs from the Department of Labour Occupational Health & Safety Division. Articles on everything from how to develop committee guidelines to how to interpret the Act, to how to conduct a meeting, to how to do “walk-throughs” are available by calling the Department of Labour OHS Division.
Concerns about school health & safety should be given to the JOHSC in written form, but the committee usually doesn’t get actively involved unless the Principal has not been successful in addressing the problem. In non-crisis situations there is a 21-day period allowed for a response. Unfortunately, action may take longer. Committees (principals, PTAs, etc.) have to be persistent sometimes.
When more help is needed:
a) It is possible to call on either the Department of Labour or the Health Inspectors when dealing with health and safety issues in schools if other efforts fail or if there is a crisis. Although the Health Inspectors can deal with health issues of children, the Department of Labour seems to have a stronger “policing” ability, and the added benefit of on-site JOHSC committees.
b) Get to know your School Board Representative. Write of your concerns, requesting action and a prompt reply.
c) Meet with other parents with similar concerns. This may be done most effectively through your PTA. Organize information sessions, invite speakers.
d) Collect research papers and articles, go to lectures on Environmental Health & Safety and Indoor Air Quality, and related topics. See CASLE’s Quick Resource page on the website www.casle.ca for source information. Knowledge is power.
e) Write of your concerns to your MLA and/or MP. Also to the Minister of Education. Immediate results don’t always happen, but informing all levels of what is going on helps in the long run by keeping the issues visible. Never doubt that citizens have the power to influence the system. Even one letter making your concerns known can help.
f) Sometimes media attention helps the process.
g) Try not to get discouraged. We have made significant progress in Nova Scotia in recent years. School officials are now very aware of school Environmental Health and Safety issues and how to deal with them.
In CASLE’s experience, the schools which have their Environmental Health and Safety concerns dealt with most quickly and quietly (usually without media involvement), are those who have the Principal, PTA and JOHSC and board staff working cooperatively toward the same goal.
The Facilities Planning Division of the Department of Education can be of assistance even though the primary responsibility for dealing with school issues remains with the Board.
If action does not come quickly enough or if concerns are disregarded, much energy can be saved by a well written, well placed letter that is copied to several key individuals such as board members, maintenance administrative staff, MLAs and MPs, the Minister of Education and possibly the Minister of Labour. It is a good idea to accompany these copied letters with a personal note asking for assistance. Be sure to tell details of the condition or incident needing attention and the consequences to your child (or children and staff members).
IN A CRISIS, THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP IS TO REMOVE THE CHILDREN/STAFF FROM FURTHER RISK (EVEN IF IT IS ONLY SUSPECTED AND NOT YET CONFIRMED RISK) UNTIL THE POTENTIAL HAZARD CAN BE ASSESSED, CONFIRMED AND REMOVED.
– CASLE (Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment
287 Lacewood Drive, Unit 103, Suite 178
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3M 3Y7