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Address By Orlando Scott, Senior Assistant General Secretary, Barbados Workers’ Union, To The 29th Annual Conference Of The Barbados Union Of Teachers, Almond Bay Conference Centre, Monday, April 14, 2003.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the head table, renowned company, I wish to express my thanks to the Executive and Members of the Barbados Union of Teachers for inviting me to address this conference. The subject which you have asked me to speak on is entitled ‘Striving for a Healthier and Safer Environment in Public Schools’. I am very pleased to have been invited by the BUT, because, over the years, I have worked very closely with you and have been part of a team which developed an occupational safety and health policy for the Caribbean Union of Teachers.

Mr. Chairman, I wish to make very clear that I am very honoured to have been asked by such an important organization to address its annual conference, and because I feel so honoured to be here, please grant me the permission, to dedicate this evening’s presentation to all of those teachers who have had a hand in my education, particularly at St. Bartholomew’s Primary, the Christ Church Foundation Boys’ School and Mona. But if you allow me to choose one teacher from among those dozens of illustrious souls, to whom I have given so much stress, it would be the late Mabel King-Stuart, who taught at the St. Bartholomew’s Primary for Girls’, during the 1950s and 1960s. Miss King was a model of humanity and kindness and, she had a tremendous impact on my life because of her gentleness, her generosity and her humanity. I also owe a debt to Mr. Ulric Parris, Mr. Gordon Walters and Mr. Knight.

I pray that all we say and do will be to the honour and glory of God.

Mr. Chairman, I have always considered teaching to be among the greatest of callings. The Lord Jesus is the greatest of teachers and in the New Testament He is addressed as Teacher. For me, teaching is the single most important formal profession, which outside of the family, that has the opportunity to influence and mould character. Apart from the parent, when you consider the development of a child, after that child reaches the age of five, the teacher is in charge of more of his or her waking hours than any other person. In fact, the majority of pupils with normal minds, usually elevate their teachers to the status, and sometimes beyond that, of parent. But in that context, some people may have carried that concept to the extreme, to the point, where too many Barbadians parents are, today, reneging their responsibility of parenting and are, as a consequence, adding extra stress on teachers by forcing them to take on the added task of foster parent. But important as the teachers and the schools are in terms of instruction, and as endearing and as compassionate as the teachers might be, the family (the home) is still the single most important human institution, and much more effort must be made to instill that truth indelibly in the consciousness of Barbadians.

Mr. Chairman, I have absolutely, no doubt, that the breakdown in foundation or spiritual values, which, in turn, has resulted in cracks in the institution of the family, has caused high levels of deviance in our society, and this has manifested itself in school children causing physical and psychological violence on teachers and on one another. This has also resulted in the growing drug habit in schools and general poor behaviour among some children. Teachers, notwithstanding the strains and stress they suffer should not become weary in right doing. I am this evening advocating that the Ministry of education, parents, the mass media, and society, in general, must be fully supportive of the Boards of Management, principals and teachers when they implement sound disciplinary systems in schools. I am suggesting that parents, more than any of the foregoing groups, should respect and support teachers and not give their children the impression that when teachers discipline them, that they, the parents should come down to the schools, like Atilla the Hun or like old viragos, and, in the Bajan vernacular, “blister teachers.” We, as parents, must be careful not to support poor behaviour, particularly at this time when violence in schools is a major problem for the management of the system.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to suggest that you would not have invited anyone to address your annual conference on the subject, ‘striving for a healthier and safer environment in public schools’, unless you had considered that topic to be of import to your membership. I note that you have chosen your words very carefully and that your emphasis is on a ‘healthier and safer environment’. You therefore are suggesting to me that you are concerned - not simply with specific worksite health and safety matters, but rather - with the sum of the environmental on the school that would undermine your health and safety:

•             Be these factors social – like deviants (drug pushers and mules) who sell drugs to unsuspecting school children and destroy their lives, or who use school children as look-outs; or parents who loud and violent parents who violate your school space by verbally or physically abusing teachers and students;

•             Be these environmental factors, such as impure air, water, dust,  chemical emissions or any other sort of pollution that undermine the health of the teachers and children;

•             Be it the lack of coordinated school maintenance that results in the deterioration of school plant, or poor housekeeping that allows for the increase in vermin – rats, mice and cockroaches which breed and leave their droppings in the cupboards and book presses in the class rooms and result in ill health among the student roll.

•             Be it psychological pressure from management, meaning policy makers, or perhaps, teachers inability to deal with student size, bad behaviour, poor physical environments, or even lack of opportunity to study

•             Be it scrappy policy regarding school repairs that negatively impact the day-to-day running of the school.

The fact that we have seen teachers, particular the BUT, approach occupational safety and health and environmental questions pertaining to schools, head on, informs me and the public of Barbados that teachers have shaken off the stuffy character of the Victorian age and have woken up to the reality that they, too, are workers, like cane cutters are workers, like construction workers are workers, and like their school colleagues, security guards, janitors and school meals’ employees are workers; your action demonstrates, too, you are aware that the teaching profession has its typical health and safety stressors in the same way that other sectors of our economy have their peculiar stressors. Even the medical profession, once preferred as elitist, is taking conditions of work seriously. I strongly advocate that Government, like employers in the Private Sector, has to deal with the human resource issues that confront workers in the Public Service and must equip its officers to deal with these issues and people, associated with these issues, in a positive way.

I am challenging those who administer education in Barbados, meaning the Ministry and teachers, to consider the school plant as a workplace. And why do I want the school to be recognized as a workplace? 

A study on work-related health problems in the European Union, 1998 to 1999, reveals that stress, depression and anxiety was the second most important health problem category among workers in the EU, following musculoskeletal disorders, and that education and health and social work were particularly affected in this area.  Lung disorders were the third highest and again, education, featured among the sectors most affected.

School personnel face all the potential hazards found in normal indoor and office environments, and these hazards include indoor air pollution, poor lighting, heat, use of office machines, slips and falls, ergonomics problems from poorly designed furniture, pesticides, infectious diseases, such as measles and chicken pox, overcrowded classrooms, noise, overloaded schedules and inadequate facilities. The Government, through the Ministry of Education, must adopt the same systems that are put in place in factories and offices across Barbados to govern industrial relations, human resources management, and matters such as health and safety. The BUT, itself, must work towards changing deep-rooted mind-sets and seek to initiate measures that are geared towards the upgrading of the human resource in schools across Barbados. A teacher who is poor mental or physical health cannot teach and the students will be the first ones to pick it up and exploit it. These measures about which I speak should include, an occupational health and safety policy to govern that discipline in all schools and the Ministry of Education must work far more closely with the Ministries of Labour, Health and the Environment, relative to putting mechanisms in place to deal with occupational safety and health, environmental and public health issues that now confront schools in Barbados.

Even to the most unbiased observer, it’s obvious that much more has to be done to improve the management of Government buildings in Barbados, as this relates to construction, refurbishments, and maintenance in its broadest sense. The problem of workers falling ill when exposed to dust or other chemicals when repairs to schools or construction work are in progress, or workers becoming ill as a consequence of lack of/or poor maintenance of buildings, pervades the entire public service – and this includes schools - and is reflected in protests and myriad complaints by public servants – against factors like, poor indoor air quality, foul odours, inadequate plumbing particular as it relates to sewerage, dusty premises and/or leaking roofs. We have a habit of occupying buildings, not  properly maintaining them, so that they run to ruin and then we start the construction of new ones. A classic example has been the historic Marine House. There is not only a poor attitude to the health of the staff, who work in these buildings, but in relation to preserving heritage.

There is not a week that passes in which I do not receive a call, at work or at home, from a worker or group of workers complaining about a dust problem or a foul odour at his or her workplace. And I can tell you that, in most cases, these problems are a direct result of the absence of preventive work, poor planning, or lack of communication when repairs or construction work is to be carried out on worksites or nearby projects. In other cases, the problem stems from poor maintenance of buildings, or poor housekeeping.

But what is the cost of all of this, particularly when you hear the powers-that-be speak to the question of absenteeism and the burden it places on the NIS?

The pace of the shift towards a positive approach in relation to occupational health and safety in Barbados has been gradual, notwithstanding the energy that we have invested in the discipline. What the powers-that- be in Barbados have failed to grasp is that the level of occupational health and safety, the socio-economic development of Barbados and the quality of life and well-being of the Barbadian worker is closely linked with each other. The obvious costs are illness suffered by workers, disruptions in production and time off from work, poor public relations, and poor interpersonal relationships between workers and their managers.

What about the money cost?

Do you know that the Barbados National Insurance Department pays out $11 million annually in sickness and payment benefits? Do you know that 7% of the Barbadian workforce is injured on the job annually and that that 7% equates to 7 728 people out of a workforce of 117 000?

Before I address questions specific to the environment in teaching institutions, I would like to talk to the broader question regarding health and safety to demonstrate to all of you that the world of work is hazardous and that we should, therefore, set programmes in place to avoid illness, injury and death. The International Labour Office informs us that about 2 million people are killed by their work every year. Sounds a bit like Iraq? This latest global estimate comes from the International Labour Office – and, according to the latest edition of HAZARDS, a magazine on OSH, the ILO says that figure of 2 million is just a small part of the carnage at work. An estimated 160 million people have work-related diseases.  A further 270 million people are injured in work accidents – if terrorism took such a toll, just imagine what would be said and done. Yet this workplace tragedy rarely hits the headline.

Understandably most of the research work done on occupational health and safety refers to industry or the office and not to teaching. But what I am about to say is relevant to teachers even though the example is drawn from industry. Teachers, like other people paid from the public purse, must understand that the pressure placed on our Governments by the World Bank and similar institutions will lead to inevitable reform in the public service; we have seen evidence of this, starting in the early 1990s. The revolutionary changes occurring in today’s workplace have far outpaced scientists’ understanding of their implications for work life quality and safety and health on the job. Organizational practices have changed dramatically in the new economy. To compete more effectively companies have restructured themselves and downsized their workforce, increased their reliance on nontraditional employment practices that depend on temporary workers and contractor-supplied labour, and adopted more flexible and lean production technologies. Is the teaching service immune?

These trends are resulting in a variety of potentially stressful or hazardous circumstances, such as reduced job stability and increased work-load demands.

Now to teaching: Mr. Chairman, teaching has not traditionally been regarded as an occupation that entails exposure to hazardous substances. As a result, few studies of occupational-related health problems have been carried out. Nevertheless, school teachers and other school personnel may be exposed to a wide variety of recognised physical, chemical and other occupational hazards.

Teaching is an occupation that is often characterized by a high degree of stress, absenteeism and burnout. There are many sources of teacher stress, which may vary with grade level. These sources of teacher stress include administrative and curriculum concerns, career advancement, student motivation, drugs, vandalism, infectious diseases, class size, run-down buildings, high crime areas, role conflict and job security. Stress may also rise from dealing with children’s misbehaviours, disruptive behaviours from parents, and possibly violence and weapons in school, in addition to physical or environmental stressors such as noise. Yes noise is a problem! For example, desirable classroom sound levels are 40 to 50 decibels (dB), whereas in one survey of several schools, classroom sound levels averaged 59 to 65 dB. The fact that the majority of teachers are women, (three fourths of all teachers in the United States are women) raises the questions of how the dual role of worker and mother may affect women’s health. However despite perceived high levels of stress, the rate of cardiovascular disease mortality in teachers was lower than in other occupations in several studies, which could be due to lower prevalence of smoking and less consumption of alcohol.

There are more subtle forces at work. Let’s face it; you teachers must give your maximum attention to your students. This can mean that so much of your energy goes to dealing with their physical, mental and social ills that little time or energy remains for yourself. Brown University in the USA found more stress-related illnesses among people whose jobs involve significant responsibility for the well-being of others.

Mr. Chairman, in the context of which I am speaking I would wish to refer to an article by E. Gelpi who writes about the fall-out that occurs as a consequence of the relations between teachers and students’ families. Gelpi makes the point that dissimilarities between family models and educational models necessitate a great effort from teachers to reach mutual understanding from the psychological, sociological and anthropological standpoint. Family models influence the behaviour patterns of some students, who can experience sharp contradictions between family training and behavioural models and norms prevailing in the school.

Let us examine some of the health and safety problems that have confronted the Barbados Union of Teachers and the teaching fraternity over the past few years – and this list is not exhaustive:

•             Teachers and students from the Louis Lynch Secondary School have been complaining for years about the effects of the emissions from an industrial plant. I think the Ministry owes it to the public to tell us what is being done to remedy the situation. We want to hear whether this matter has been studied and what have been the cases relative to illness among teachers and children as well as the level of absenteeism.

•             Parkinson Secondary sits to the west of an industrial plant and one of the busiest highways in Barbados. Exhaust fumes from the thousands of vehicles, which stop and start off from the traffic lights, just a few yards away, have had a serious effect on the health of the staff at that school. I am told that some classrooms cannot be used because of the noise and constant emission of fumes from vehicles. Have there been any studies done to determine the extent of the problem on the health of the teachers and students? Let us know.

•             A number of primary schools, many of which are located in communities, have no security fence and are exposed to intruders and passers-by. The BUT is concerned that whereas all of the secondary schools are fenced and have security guards, the same condition does not exist for primary schools.

•             The issue of asbestos remains a problem for some schools and Bay Primary has been identified by the BUT as a school where there are broken sheets of asbestos on the roof

•             A number of schools have unpaved yards and dust creates a problem for staff and children in these environments – this has resulted in ill health and absenteeism among school teachers

•             The BUT points out that construction work has been on-going at St. Leonard’s for five years and there have been several health and safety issues related to heavy construction on the compound while classes were being conducted.

Past occupational health and safety issues include:

•             The sighting of rats at Springer Memorial,  an issue which has been immortalised in song, through several calypsos

•             Faeces at St. Leonard’s,

•             Bomb threats at St. Philip Primary,

•             Pollutants in the immediate school communities,

•             Burning of trash and garbage by residents in nearby communities,

•             Exposure to fumes from painting done during school time,

•             Inadequate exits in cases of emergency,

•             Little or inadequate fire equipment,

•             Absence of fire drills by trained personnel,

•             Inadequate sick bays, and

•             Ned for Guidance counsellors in primary schools.

What we have seen from the above is that teaching institutions are no longer entirely remote, or separate, from the communities in which they are located. In the context of Barbados most of our schools, particularly the older ones are part of traditional communities, so whatever affects these communities, impacts the school, whether it is deviance, bush or rubbish fires, or rodent infestation. As Susan Magor, writing in the 4th edition of the ILO Encyclopedia on OSH writes, the very nature of educational institution puts them at particular risk: a vulnerable population where the exchange of ideas and differing opinions is valued, but where the concept of academic freedom may not always be balanced with professional responsibility. In recent years educational institutions have experienced more acts of violence towards educational community members, coming from the external community or erupting from within. Acts of violence perpetrated against individual members of the educational community are no longer extremely rare events. School campuses are sites for many social events, and, in this regard, public safety and crowd control must be taken into consideration. Hazard identification and controls must be taken into consideration for sports programmes, field trips and a variety of sponsored recreational activities. Emergency medical service needs to be available even for off campus activities and personal safety is best managed through hazards reporting and education programmes.

Public health issues associated with school life, such as control of communicable diseases, and sanitation of food services must be addressed. With the serious socio-economic implications posed by HIV/AIDS, a sustained programme of training for teachers, ancillary staff and students, in relation to HIV/AIDS and the use of universal precautions must be put in place. We must also note, in this regard, that the teacher is the mother/father, nurse, for the many children who fall ill at school, daily, some with infectious diseases with which children suffer. They must be trained in the correct methods to handle these problems.  Education regarding other sexually-transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, blood-borne pathogens, stress and mental illness is particularly important particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels. I recall hearing a teacher in a neighbouring island swear that he would not touch a child who was bleeding for fear of contracting the HIV virus. Teachers must be trained how to handle emergencies.

As I have indicated, in order for us to see positive changes in occupational health and safety in the schools, Government, meaning the Ministry of Education, principals and teachers (including teacher unions) must be willing to break the old mould. We have to recognize that we are living in dynamic times and that we must effect change where that change is necessary. I suggest the following:

•             First, the school must be regarded as a workplace and, the Ministry of Education and the Teachers’ Unions, should sit down and work out their own salvation, by dealing with the issues and seeking to find solutions, among which is an occupational health and safety policy that manages secondary and primary schools.

•             The teaching sector should request dedicated environmental/occupational; health and safety officers to monitor schools, carry out inspections, offer programmes that seek to reduce risks, and offer general advice on OSH;

•             Teachers’ unions should seek to work with Government and NGOs to design and implement a coordinated school health programme for healthy youth. The reason is that many of the health challenges facing young people today are different from those of past decades. Advances in medications and vaccines have largely addressed the illness, disability and death that common infectious diseases once caused among children. Certain behaviours that are often established during youth contribute markedly to today’s major causes of death such as heart disease, cancer and injuries. These behaviours include a) eating unhealthy foods, b) using tobacco, c) engaging in sexual behaviors that can cause HIV infection, and other STIs, and unintended pregnancies; and d) engaging in behaviours that can result in violence or unintentional injuries.

•             Teacher unions should promote meetings with Government to initiate action on priority areas such as the Louis Lynch Secondary Schools and Parkinson Schools

•             There should be a coordinated industrial cleaning of all schools before the each new term

•             Teacher Unions should request Government to assist in the training of teachers and ancillary staff in occupational health and safety and the environment; and

•             Teacher unions and schools should push government to tighten security around schools

What is very clear is that life is a dynamic and that we are going to be confronted, more and more, with changes and problems. But we must teach ourselves, or be taught, how to manage change and conflict. I am of the considered opinion that many of the problems with which we are confronted at the level of the employer and worker in the Public and Private Sectors in Barbados can be avoided if we simply seek to have prior discussion and consultation among ourselves. We all speak English. Let’s talk and stick to what we agree on.  This rigidity in the system often stems, I fear, from lack of mutual respect, in some cases, and, in other cases, from ignorance relating to the issues. We have suffered often in relation to occupational health and safety issues because we have failed to listen to, or to empathise with, those who are suffering.  I will close with this example, if there is going to be renovation work in any school, a safety protocol should be written to spell out how work will be done, and meetings should be held before any work begins with subsequent meetings to ensure that renovation is conducted safely and without significant disruption to education. I hope that this conference would be the jumpstart for better relations and improved health and safety in the teaching profession.