Examples of Hazardous Incidents in Schools

Examples of Hazardous Incidents in Schools: an article of historical significance that is still relevant.

This is a partial list of hazardous incidents in schools that occurred in a one year period, 1995 to 1996. The list was sent to several government ministers in 1996 to demonstrate that action was needed at the time to correct school environmental health and safety problems. CASLE does not learn of every incident that happens, and therefore it was reasonable to assume that similar problems were occurring in other schools. Consequently, senior staff from the provincial departments of Labour, Environment, Health, Education, and Finance met together with CASLE to find ways to prevent school children’s environmental health and safety from “slipping between the cracks”. This meeting of January, 1997, was a pivotal day for huge improvements that have come to the schools of Nova Scotia since. The province became a leader in Healthy School Operation and Healthy New School Design and Construction and has served as an example for other regions ever since.

  1. Mould consultants advised that a mouldy gymnasium ceiling should be replaced, but school board employees decided it would be acceptable to install a false ceiling below it instead. Parents alerted officials and had it stopped.
  2. A storage room was converted into a classroom while industrial strength floor stripper and cleaning materials were left stored behind a partition, and with a non-functioning air delivery system. A parent alerted officials, and minimum improvements were done. The previously healthy teacher was using a puffer after a few months, and was unable to teach the following year.
  3. Tiles on one side of a classroom floor were replaced with glue while the class was being conducted in the other half of the room. Several maintenance people went home ill, but the children stayed. One child stayed home for two weeks after being made ill by this exposure, and has suffered from chronic ill health ever since.
  4. A school yard was paved during school hours, exposing children and staff to harmful fumes.
  5. Roofs were routinely tarred while school was in session. In one case the indoor walls of a school were painted while the roof was being tarred. It was impossible to escape from the fumes, and some school occupants became chronically ill as a result.
  6. Asbestos was removed from schools over the summer and without the stringent cleanup required by the Department of Labour. In some schools it was reported that workers wearing protective suits worked while children sat unprotected in nearby classrooms.
  7. Asbestos-bearing floor tiles (as defined by Labour Standards) were removed from a classroom in the manner used for 20 or so years in the school system. That is, without protection of children or workers from the dust and debris. A parent alerted officials, but Department of Labour intervention was finally required to correct the situation and ensure the writing of proper Safe Work Practices.
  8. Stripping and varnishing of gym floors was commonly done while school was in session. Notes were sometimes sent to inform parents, but parents tend to trust that school officials will protect their children from any real possible harm. Students and staff often reported nose bleeds, rashes, asthma, headaches, flu-like symptoms>. Months later some still had symptoms when in or near the gym.
  9. Schools were painted indoors and out while school was in session, and children breathed the fresh paint fumes. Even the less toxic paint fumes can trigger asthma and worse. Now, informed principals ensure this and other potentially harmful work is rescheduled.
  10. Scraping of old paint which likely contained lead was done without testing for lead, and while children were present, and without cleanup required by law. Lead is known to be highly dangerous to children in particular, and is strictly regulated by government.
  11. Outdoor staging was unsupervised, and with no fencing, where elementary children played.
  12. Pesticide treatment was done outside the perimeter of a school, with windows open. Spray drifted over children at their desks. Several children suffered asthma attacks. At least one child missed school for several weeks. Indoor crack and crevice treatments were done after hours, but without other precautions recommended by National Pest Line or IWK Poison Control. Each year children were hospitalized from such exposures.
  13. Officials denied there was an oil leak for two months while teachers and children complained of ill health. Labour Department intervention was required. Over 1000 litres had spilled, and the school had to be closed for 4 months for cleanup. The Principal and several teachers and children were sensitized or made sicker by the exposure. More than $500,000 was spent on cleanup and an air system.
  14. Scent-Free Schools are common now. Long term, concerted effort resulted in Scent Free programs for most schools. Often, even when successful, parents had to constantly monitor the school environment and continue to remind all involved in order to keep the more sensitive children in school. One child who was on the floor after having been incapacitated by a teacher’s perfume was told by a staff member that he doesn’t “like the smell of tuna”, and that the child should just “get used to the smell of perfume”. It was not recognized that this is a physical problem, not an attitude or mental problem.
  15. PCB ballast lights were removed during class time and stored in the furnace room. These are not harmful if not leaking but have been known to leak, or even spray PCB-laden oil when disturbed.
  16. A mouldy Teachers Resource Centre was once a relatively healthy building. Improper renovations were done, causing leaks it is believed, and mould grew inside walls. Almost all staff became ill on this site, which has now been permanently closed. The costs of this in dollars, not to mention staff’s loss of health, have not been made public.
  17. Carpets were removed with questionable (or no) Safe Work Practices due to a disagreement over what constitutes a mouldy carpet. Mouldy carpet removal requires strict precautions according to government regulations. Research has shown that the “sink effect” allows harmful substances to collect in the carpet fibres and to be released when disturbed.
  18. The brickwork of a school’s outer walls was to be repointed by a subcontractor. Teachers were warned to park their cars well away from the school building because the resulting dust could damage the paint jobs. The workers were well equipped with safety suits and breathing protectors as clouds of dust rose up, engulfing the school. Dust drifted into the classrooms through the open windows, covered every surface, and contaminated the breathing space. Floors were slippery from the layer of dust underfoot, and computers were reported to be “ruined”. Students were seen entering and leaving the school with their coats pulled over their heads. As with asbestos, exposure to silica dust is regulated by the Department of Labour because of the known risk of silicosis of the lungs developing after even moderate exposures and often not until years after the exposure.
  19. The list could go on. In one somewhat humorous incident, pigeon nests over a school entry caused the Health inspection section of the Dept of Environment to require they be removed. However another section of the same department insisted they be left undisturbed until the baby pigeons left the nest. The pigeons were allowed to stay, and school staff protected children’s health by frequent cleaning under the nest.

Incidents do still happen but there have been major improvements across the Province. The Department of Education, together with other government departments, the school boards, and CASLE, have worked hard on prevention and training. Nova Scotia has become a Healthy Schools leader in North America.