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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2009

Health & Safety Are Vital Issues for Academic Staff

By Penni Stewart
Each year more than two million workers die from work-related accidents and diseases, with cancer as the leading cause of premature death. And, although a particularly heavy toll of dead and injured occurs in the world’s most hazardous industries, academic staff are not immune to occupational fatalities, injuries and diseases.

Take the visual arts for instance, where academic staff routinely work with corrosive acids, solvents, dyes and metals. Historically, painters have been exposed to pigments la­den with heavy metals including lead, mercury, cadmium and chro­mium. The silica dust in clays threatens potters with silicosis. And printmakers use dangerous acids. While accidental exposure to occupational hazards is largely preven­table, invisible, long term, or frequent ex­posure to even low-level concentrations of materials can result in toxic overload. Evidence accumulated in recent years links chronic exposure to paints and solvents to cancer, and particularly bladder cancer.

Performance artists also face occupational hazards ranging from dermatitis to musculoskeletal prob­lems to accidents involving stage rigging and special effects. Dancers are prone to severe trauma and also to repetitive strain injuries and mu­sicians can encounter a wide range of difficulties from neck injuries for violinists and fungal infection for bagpipers to lip trauma for trumpeters.

When two anthropologists at the University of Manitoba developed mesothelioma that was conclusively linked to exposure to asbestos in a university building, it was a wake up call. This fibrous mineral may be found in ceiling and floor tiles, insulation materials, adhesives and plaster in many university buildings. Researchers have argued that industrialized countries are in the throes of an asbestos epidemic resulting from work-related exposures 20 and 30 years ago when asbestos was widely used. Although the use of asbestos has been banned in new construction projects, many older buildings that adorn our campuses contain asbestos. We must actively monitor our workplaces and insist on the development of and adherence to appropriate asbestos protocols.

Canada’s approach to the health hazards of asbestos has an international dimension. To our great shame, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the harm it causes, Canada is a major exporter of chry­sotile asbestos to countries with lower environmental standards, where it continues to be used in construction. Although Canada is mining less asbestos than a decade ago, we still provide significant technical support to countries using and producing asbestos.

This year Canada helped block efforts to have chrysotile asbestos included in the Rotterdam Convention, a global treaty that would have required exporting countries to warn others that asbestos is carcinogenic in minuscule amounts. CAUT has joined with labour organizations and NGOs to demand a stop to Canadian asbestos exports and a worldwide ban on its use.

And our workplaces have other daily hazards. Short of breath, dizzy after a few hours teaching, or experiencing poor concentration? The cause may well be “sick building syndrome,” in which building occupants experience acute and immediate health effects related to indoor air quality. Exposure to mold spores in the indoor environment where there is a perpetual moisture problem can cause allergic and im­mune reactions ranging from minor sinusitis to asthma to severe lung infections. Keyboards can be an occupational risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

What should our associations do about health and safety threats on campus? Of course, protection is the responsibility of the colleges and universities that employ us, and it is reasonable to expect they should be bound by appropriate federal and provincial regulations enforced by effective policing. But regulation is often inadequate, enforcement can be slow and weak, and our employers fear the cost of remediation.

While each of us needs to be informed and vigilant about risks in our own work environment, we also need organization. Where it is not already mandated by legislation, every college and university should have a joint health and safety committee with academic staff representatives chosen by the union or association. This committee should be the central body for handling safety and health issues.

Health and safety also belong in our collective agreements to ensure effective recourse and strong protections where legislation is weak. Attention to health and safety issues serves our members while strengthening our associations. At my own institution, health and safety issues in the faculty of science became a catalyst for organization of an all-union caucus that was effectively able to demand change. Taking up these issues as an activism effort also served to draw new members into active involvement in the faculty association.

CAUT is proactive in ensuring academic staff associations are well informed about health and safety issues. We develop and distribute health and safety resources, we organized a second occupational health and safety conference in November, and our web site regularly posts information sheets and health and safety updates.