How can we avoid a “Cargill” in our classrooms?

We need to look at school reopening through the lens of established workplace health and safety principles!

In less than four weeks, 750,000 students and 90,000 education workers will go back to school. We owe it to them to make the return as safe as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to look at the issue through the lens of workplace health and safety. Here in Alberta, our biggest COVID outbreaks so far have been in workplaces – long-term care facilities and meat packing plants. In those cases, the government failed the public when they failed to look at the COVID crisis through the lens of workplace health and safety. Schools are also workplaces. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes with them that we made with long-term care facilities and meat packing plants.

So, what lessons from the discipline of workplace health and safety can and should be applied to schools as they reopen? Here are the most important.

1. The Hierarchy of Controls

When faced with a workplace hazard, there are a number of options for how to address it. The absolute best response when possible is to eliminate the hazard altogether. In the case of COVID-19, we can’t absolutely eliminate the hazard. But we CAN remove people from places where the hazard is highest. That’s why lockdowns are so effective. If elimination is not possible, the next step is to consider a substitution to replace the hazard. This works with industrial chemicals, but not with viruses, so it’s not an option for the coronavirus. After that we turn to what are called engineering controls. In the case of COVID-19, an example of engineering control is the use of plastic shields between people so they are prevented from coming into contact with one another. The second lowest response level is known as administrative controls. This would include things like physical distancing and creating cohorts or different shifts for people. The very last and least effective way to address a hazard is through personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is the last line of defense against an injury or illness and should only be needed when controls higher in the hierarchy do not fully eliminate a hazard – they should never be the first or only line of defense.

Masks are the last line of defense to protect people when no other options exist or work. They are NOT designed to be the first and only precaution when it comes to workplace health and safety.

2. Precautionary Principle

One of the foundations of a healthy Occupation Health & Safety (OHS) system is the precautionary principle. Simply put, when people’s lives are a risk, the precautionary principle states that we should err on the side of caution, even if all the science is not yet settled. For a new hazard like COVID-19, following the precautionary principles means that we should take every prudent action possible to keep people safe – lockdowns, physical distancing, hand washing, smaller class sizes, mandatory masking, better cleaning, better ventilation, etc. – even if some of the science is still being debated by experts. Workers sometimes do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific consensus when it comes to OHS matters, and unfortunately, some businesses have a history of hiding the real harm of their products – think tobacco companies. Because of this, we use the precautionary principle to protect people. We don’t have to conduct double blind scientific tests to know certain practices help prevent the spread of COVID-19 when schools reopen, rather the fact that these practices could help should be sufficient.

3. The Right to Know

Good workplace health and safety also depends on giving workers the tools they need to keep themselves safe. OHS experts agree that empowered workers are safer workers. They also agree that this empowerment can only exist when workers are given the ability to exercise the three core rights of workplace safety: the right to know, the right to participate and the right to refuse. The right to know means that workers must have the right to know about actual and potential dangers in the workplace. In terms of school reopening, children, their parents, their families, teachers and other staff have a right to know about the potential and actual dangers that may be faced in schools. This means the dangers have to be identified and steps developed for how these dangers are being dealt with.

We are still learning about COVID-19 and children, yet our politicians seem determined to minimize any potential risk and claim people who bring up concerns are fear mongering. The legitimate concerns of families, children and education workers need to be addressed and we need to stop pretending that we know everything about how Covid-19 affects children.

4. The Right to Participate

Another of the fundamental rights for workers is the right to participate. This gives workers the right to provide input on the steps taken by employers to ensure health and safety. For school reopening, students, teachers and other staff, parents, and their families should have a right to participate in the development of safety practices to help keep everyone safe. Education workers and students have the best knowledge about what actually goes on in a school and where the greatest risk could be. We should be using their knowledge to make the best back to school plan possible and not dismissing their concerns.

5. The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

The last and most important right when it comes to workplace health and safety, is the right to refuse unsafe work. This right is the very last check and balance when the first two rights, the hierarchy of controls, and the precautionary principle fail. For some workers, this right has literally saved their lives. In the context of school reopening, students, teachers and other school staff should be able to refuse to go along with inadequate government safety planning. And when they refuse, just like on a worksite, the government should have to investigate the danger along with the students and staff, and come up with a better way to address the hazard and make the school safer for everyone. Although individual students, teachers and their families have been given the option of refusing to go back to school, what’s missing from the perspective accepted OHS best practice is that the danger is still not being addressed or investigated. This means that families and students who are able to refuse unsafe schooling will be able to do so – but others will be left dealing with the dangers on their own.

We need to stop putting families in the impossible position of having to choose between an inadequate safety plan that potentially puts their kids and their families at risk, and homeschooling their kids or putting them in private schools – both of which are either undesirable or untenable for many families. These are individual solutions to a collective issue. What we need instead is strong leadership from a government that puts children, families, and workers first. A government that doesn’t try to use a global health pandemic as an excuse to undermine public education and force people to turn to the private education system. Right now, Alberta needs a strong compassionate leader that understands the concerns of Albertans, not one who dismisses those concerns and is willing to risk the lives of children.

The province’s school reopening plans are clearly inadequate and are in need of an urgent reevaluation. This reevaluation should start by looking at the whole issue of school reopening through the lens of established workplace health and safety principles. By doing this we can avoid turning our classrooms into “Cargills”.