Workers Health & Safety Centre

Asbestos precautions, including training, inadequate in Ontario schools, survey

Custodial workers in Ontario schools are concerned asbestos containing materials (ACM) are not well managed and training is inadequate, according to a recent report. 
 
The report is based on a survey conducted by researchers from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
 
Of the 527 survey respondents who perform janitorial or maintenance functions, almost seven in ten report the presence of asbestos containing material (ACM) in their schools. One in four report interacting directly with ACM during the course of work while 66 per cent say they interact indirectly.
 
“Until the 1980’s we used a lot of asbestos in our public buildings, and that includes schools,” says Paul Demers, director, OCRC and lead researcher for this study. “It was thought of as a safety measure at the time, but we are now well aware of the significant risk to health for those exposed. Until we commit to the efforts needed to remove these substances from schools we must be vigilant about how we protect school workers.”
 
The survey results suggest much work remains.

Inadequate protection

Just 60 per cent of respondents reported areas around damaged or deteriorating ACM are enclosed. Even less reported the use of HEPA vacuums, wet treatment of ACM and the sealing of soiled equipment and debris for safe disposal. Furthermore, of those interacting with ACM just 60 per cent report using personal protective equipment. Of these, seven in ten reported using dust masks.  
 
Equally troubling, one in three say they have never received asbestos training. Not surprising then, just six in 10 respondents said they were able to recognize asbestos.
 
Most reported knowing their school has an asbestos management plan and where it is located. However, only about half of these respondents reported using their schools’ asbestos management plan as a resource to identify areas where asbestos exposure is likely.
 
According to the researchers, “The study findings are reflective of the respondents’ experiences and provide evidence that recommended practices for managing asbestos are not well adopted across the schools.”
 
In fact, these findings suggest school boards may not be complying with their legal obligations to protect workers, including mandatory training.

School boards' legal obligations

The Occupational Health & Safety Act (OHSA) requires employers and supervisors to identify workplace hazards, including ACM, and take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.
 
Building owners, including school boards, have more specific obligations including preparing and maintaining an “ongoing asbestos management plan” (Ontario Regulation 278/05). The plan must include a record of ACM locations, updating this record every 12-months or when new information becomes available, sharing these records with employees and others, along with specific measures to control exposure (including those mentioned above).
 
School boards must also provide training to all workers at risk of exposure. The researchers highlight this obligation, though emphasize training should not be a one off occurrence calling for school boards to provide refresher training “multiple times during a workers’ career.” They also emphasized the need to provide training to casual and rotating staff who are likely less familiar with the location of ACM in schools. 

Addressing legacy asbestos

Legacy asbestos in schools, hospitals, homes and other structures built prior to 1980 will continue to be a serious risk to health for custodial workers and the 150,000 additional Canadian workers exposed—50,000 in Ontario.
 
According to a new report from the OCRC, occupational exposure to asbestos is responsible for almost 2,400 cancers annually in Canada, mostly fatal.  
 
Ensuring workers and the public know which building contain deadly ACM is an important step towards prevention. The federal government already has a publicly accessible inventory of buildings owned or leased by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and the Government of Canada and whether or not they contain asbestos, as does Saskatchewan
 
Labour and environmental advocates along with many others, including OCRC, continue to call for public registries of all public buildings and workplaces across Canada.
 
The OCRC and others though recognize much work remains to ensure the health of students, workers or members of the public who enter these properties.
 
The OCRC director, Paul Demers, believes a broader effort to safely remove asbestos from schools, hospitals and other structures is needed. “As schools and other asbestos containing buildings and structures age and deteriorate, there is a greater potential for asbestos to be released,” he explains. “Although the complete removal is an expensive option, we must consider the cost to worker and public health without such an investment.”
 
Meantime, labour, environmental and other advocates continue to press for more actions to address lack of awareness, prevention and just compensation for those affected, including:
  • developing a national strategy to inform Canadians of the continuing hazards posed by asbestos
  • harmonizing regulations around disposal and remediation
  • developing a national registry to track occurrences of exposure and disease, and
  • developing a national health response to asbestos disease, including early detection and treatment as well as monitoring the health of workers who are exposed to asbestos.

WHSC can help!

For our part, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers an Asbestos awareness training program exploring methods for identifying and assessing exposure risks, mandatory asbestos management programs along with practical methods for controlling exposure.
 
To learn more about asbestos or WHSC Asbestos training: 
Call: 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a WHSC training services representative, or
Email: contactus@whsc.on.ca

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