YARMOUTH, N.S. (Canadian OH&S News)
School might be back in session for most students, but for teachers working at a high school in Nova Scotia, that might be short-lived. Concerns over the air quality at a Yarmouth, N.S. school are believed to be making the staff sick, and has prompted many of them to refuse to work in an unsafe environment.
In a meeting on Jan. 4, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) met with teachers at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School to hear complaints about headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sore throats, drowsiness and dry eyes, explained Shelley Morse, president of the NSTU.
More than 20 teachers have been off sick between November and mid-January, and some have exercised their right to refuse to work in an unsafe environment under the union’s mandate and the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. Morse added that those who can perform their duties from a remote location have been reassigned to different locations for the time being.
The issue began in November of 2012, after a doctor’s note prescribed a sick teacher two weeks off work and attributed her illness to the poor air quality in the building. More and more teachers experienced the same symptoms, which prompted the school board to rethink their original theory. Initially, the board had chalked up the illness to a common circulating cold or flu. Instead, they deployed their occupational health and safety investigators both in the summer and the day before school started.
“The administration contacted me and we did our own investigation,” said Jamie Moses, the occupational health and safety director for the Tri-County Regional School Board. “I tested it again for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate temperature, humidity, things of that nature. Everything, I should say, came back within normal limits. No test found any trace of carbon monoxide, and everything else was within the legislative limits.”
Mechanical systems in school not functioning properly
Moses said a second, independent contractor came up with the same results, however, he determined that the mechanical systems in the school were not functioning to par. For instance, poor air flow, ventilation and pressure variances could explain some of the sick staff. He added that the humidifiers and air handlers were not functioning either, making the air very dry, and the new lighting system was working intermittently, making some areas of the building too dim and others too bright.
“There was one air-handling unit that was only working intermittently, the others in the building were running but weren’t working properly,” Moses said. “So, in some rooms there was a lot of air flow, in other rooms there was hardly any. So there was a problem with fresh air in the building…What [the report] looks like is that the all of these symptoms that people were complaining about — the sore throat, dry eyes, drowsiness, headaches — were all related to those things.”
Further complicating the matter is the fact that the school board does not own the building. Instead, it belongs to the provincial Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. The department confirmed that they had contracted independent air quality experts to investigate over the first weekend in January, as well as conducted interviews with the teachers to find the root of the problem.