Advancing the curriculum
Chris Karuhanga considers himself a social activist and believes that to make a difference you need to speak out. “You can choose to be silent,” he says, “or you can actively participate to change things for the better.”
Karuhanga has done just that. The Sarnia-based elementary teacher is past president of the St. Clair Elementary unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and is currently a delegate to the Sarnia and District Labour Council.
Karuhanga provided strong leadership last spring when asbestos was discovered in a number of local schools. Despite Ontario’s regulation on asbestos in buildings (see below), a cable installer disturbed the deadly substance while working above suspended ceiling tiles at a Sarnia elementary school. Subsequent inspections ordered by the Ministry of Labour (MOL) found asbestos in 35 of 41 elementary schools in the St. Clair Catholic District School Board.
Rather than simply encapsulating the “friable” material, it was removed altogether. Calls from concerned OECTA members led Karuhanga to further investigate whether his members should be entered into the MOL asbestos registry — a system designed to identify workers exposed to certain types of asbestos that also notifies their physicians of the potential need for medical attention.
Eighteen of the schools contained these very types of asbestos, but Karuhanga was told teachers’ exposures are considered secondary, since they do not work directly with the substance. As such they are ineligible for the registry. Despite this setback Karuhanga is pressing the Ministry to change their registry criteria. He, his union, and the labour movement as a whole, maintain there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. In the interim OECTA is also establishing their own asbestos registry. Further, they have written the St. Clair Board requesting they place a record of exposure in each teacher’s personnel file.
Overall, Karuhanga calls the experience a catalyst. It certainly sparked a realization among local unions and the labour council of the need to better coordinate their efforts in and out of the schools. The incident also uncovered shortcomings in their joint committee structure, problems created in part by school board amalgamation. And it identified the need for quality, comprehensive training, plus more thorough school inspections.
The Ministry of Labour assisted the parties in establishing a new committee structure and terms of reference that Karuhanga says was a key achievement. “The agreement commits the parties in real and concrete terms and will help ensure the joint committee carries out its responsibilities in a thorough and meaningful way.”
The asbestos scare concludes Karuhanga was, “a wake-up call to be proactive and educate ourselves on asbestos and other health and safety matters.”
Karuhanga says he intends to contribute further by seeking a position on the joint committee. He is also quick to acknowledge the importance of supportive colleagues whom he says recognized his ability and encouraged him to speak out. Victoria Hannah is among them. An OECTA executive assistant responsible for health, safety and the environment, Hannah says of Karuhanga, “Chris stands out amongst his colleagues. His tenacity in ensuring that all schools were safe workplaces and his courage to hold his employer accountable in the provision of safe workplaces speaks of a true health and safety activist.”
Until 1973 building and construction industries used asbestos widely. In fact the largest single application of asbestos within industry was as a reinforcing agent in cement products. The second most common use was electrical, acoustical and thermal insulation in buildings. We are left with a legacy of potentially hazardous schools, homes and commercial buildings.
The Regulation Respecting Asbestos on Construction Projects and in Buildings and Repair Operations
requires employers involved in the construction, renovation, repair, alteration or maintenance of a building and the owners of buildings to determine if friable material containing asbestos will be disturbed by the work. Where friable asbestos is identified the owner shall:
• prepare and maintain a record of the location of friable material;
• inform workers who may work in close proximity and who may disturb the material of its location;
• train workers in hazards of exposure, use of protective equipment and clothing, and safer work practices when working with asbestos;
• inspect friable material at regular intervals; and
• classify asbestos work as Type 1, Type 2, Type 3.
Where it is apparent that friable asbestos-containing material is deteriorating and falling onto building surfaces, the regulation requires the building owner to take remedial action.
For further information visit the Workers Centre web site or contact a Workers Centre office near you.