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Library survey pinpoints biohazards, understaffing, other employee stressors

Survey is first part of study of worker safety in B.C. libraries


(Canadian OH&S News) — The British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has completed the first stage of its ongoing study of occupational health and safety at the province’s libraries. The union surveyed more than 500 employees at both public and academic libraries during May and June this year.

Although more than 80 per cent of respondents indicated that they rarely or never felt unsafe at work — with “rarely” defined as “only a few times per year” — the survey also revealed that B.C. library employees are occasionally exposed to biohazards. According to a draft of the survey report that CUPE provided to COHSN, 37 percent of respondents claimed that they had been exposed to excrement or urine. Nearly as many had experienced exposure each to vomit, blood and saliva, while used needles and bedbugs were each cited by more than 25 per cent. Only 31 per cent said that they never encountered biohazards at work.

In addition, 56 per cent of respondents said they felt that staffing levels affected their safety at work. Although 65 per cent were rarely or never required to work alone, nearly half of the ones who did so at least once a month were unfamiliar with lone-worker procedures. Some respondents noted that they felt unsafe when working alone; others felt that their libraries were chronically understaffed, especially on evenings and weekends.

CUPE B.C. library coordinator Zoe Magnus called it “unfortunate” that the media had been focusing primarily on the survey’s biohazard findings. “That’s actually not what motivated the survey, and it’s certainly not the entire content,” she said.

“What motivated the survey was anecdotal reports that we’ve been receiving for years,” explained Magnus, “of increasing pressures on library workers arising from a number of factors, largely cutbacks in all other factors that are impacting library workers.”

Magnus, a former library worker with 25 years’ experience, pointed out that cuts in the province’s social safety nets had eliminated agencies intended to provide services for people needing employment or shelter, driving them to libraries instead. “So we’re getting increasingly a clientele that have greater needs than one would assume if you didn’t work in a public library,” she said. “There’s this increased expectation on the part of patrons that’s sort of creating attention with what it is library workers actually are able to do in a working day.”

Even school libraries are facing similar issues, adding further stress to employees. “The social pressures of bullying have led to kids in schools using libraries as a place of refuge,” said Magnus. “Students are gravitating towards trips to libraries for places of support that we wouldn’t normally have thought that’s the kind of work library workers do.”

The report draft, titled Library Health & Safety, made five recommendations to the B.C. library sector:

  • Provide more oh&s training and education;
  • Raise awareness of other oh&s issues besides ergonomics;
  • Make sure all safety incidents are reported to the respective library’s joint occupational health and safety committee;
  • Lobby for minimum-staffing provisions in collective agreements; and
  • In libraries with largely marginalized clienteles, initiate special outreach positions.

CUPE’s next step is to conduct follow-up interviews with selected survey respondents for more details on the issues facing B.C. library employees.

“We’re looking at the release of the full report in December,” said Magnus.