Breaking the mould
Law abiding citizens attend courthouses seeking justice. As such most of us associate these buildings with authority, stability and quite literally with the rule of law. But Val Erwin and her co-workers also know courthouses to be places of peril.
Ever since Erwin can remember she and her co-workers at Newmarket’s Ontario Provincial Courthouse have been sick, exhibiting symptoms often related to poor indoor air quality. “We have had runny noses, watery eyes and congestion. By mid-afternoon people were consistently sleepy and tired. The situation only seemed to worsen as the workforce increased.” Erwin reports in two separate cases, individuals were taken out by an ambulance after they fainted while on the job.
Concerned for the health of all involved, the joint health and safety committee, of which Erwin is worker co-chair, suggested last February that workers start documenting their symptoms. Shortly thereafter mould growth was discovered in a Justice-of-the Peace’s office. Subsequent investigation and testing revealed a strain of mould — stachybotrys chartarum — in several other locations throughout the building. According to documented health reports, this mould can produce adverse effects on the central nervous system, eyes, skin and upper and lower respiratory tract, plus chronic fatigue.
“Even though the facts were clear,” says Erwin, “the building was riddled with toxic mould. The battle now was to convince the employer to vacate the workplace during remediation.” Working with her union, Local 310 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), and representatives of their provincial office, Erwin took on this battle.
As one of their first actions they held a press conference at Queen’s Park at which Erwin spoke. “I was very nervous, but later when someone asked why I was doing all this, I told them it is for the 200 people who work in the courthouse, OPSEU members, lawyers and judges alike, for the public attending the courthouse and for myself. I too was affected. I was training for a triathlon which I had to give up because the mould struck me so severely.”
That was the first of several press conferences Erwin would give. Press releases and media interviews would also follow. Back at the courthouse she continued to help educate both management and workers about the situation. This education came in many forms, everything from helping workers to file claims with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, to speaking at health and safety meetings, to providing hazard bulletins.
On June 30, 2000, the courthouse finally closed. They now operate out of four separate locations. Erwin says everyone is just happy to be out of the building. However, for her it’s not nearly over, “Once a week I attend remediation meetings where I gather information about the progress of work being done.” She then shares this information with co-workers and OPSEU.
Bob DeMatteo, senior health and safety officer for OPSEU, has high praise for Erwin’s activism. “Erwin worked really hard to pull her members together to fight for a healthy and safer workplace. Frankly if it was not for her I don’t know if we would have had the positive resolution we did.