Jean Grassman presented the union’s health and safety demands to the CUNY Bargaining Committee. (photo credit: Dave Sanders)
With the presentation of the union’s contractual health and safety demands, I’d like to provide some additional details. The first statement of Article 39.1 simply reiterates the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, which states that the place of employment should be free of recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.
We believe we can do better than simply prevent death or serious harm in the workplace.
Hence, the proposed next sentence specifies that the workplace be “free of physical or environmental conditions that interfere with teaching and learning or with the ability of employees to perform their assigned duties.”
Our proposed expansion of the General Duty Clause specified in Article 39.1 is not without precedent. Article 32 of the contract between the AFSCME Administrative Clericals bargaining unit at the University of Connecticut and the state simply says that “The Employer shall provide a workplace free from unsafe or unhealthy conditions.”
The focus on improving working conditions comes with many levels of benefits – not only does it reduce the burden of illness and injury for our members, but it also permits us to better do the work that we love at CUNY.
Here are three examples of deficiencies in physical and environmental conditions from this year alone, all of which have the demonstrated potential to adversely impact health.
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly recognizes SARS-CoV-2 as an airborne pathogen, and while COVID continues to circulate, air purifiers are being removed from classrooms and offices because they are no longer “required.”
Second, at Brooklyn College, students and instructors suffered terribly at the beginning of the semester when temperatures in art studios reached the 90s. When a work order was submitted, they were told that an immediate fix was not possible because there was a delay in obtaining a part. This would be understandable, except the excessive temperatures have happened in these spaces every September for the past five years.
And third, water pressure at Kingsborough Community College has been so low recently that toilets don’t flush – yet people continue to use them.
Airborne pathogens, temperature extremes and a lack of sanitation are most certainly recognized hazards as stated by the OSH Act.
And while nobody has died – yet – all of these scenarios demonstrate situations that place our members at risk while severely impacting their ability to do their best work.
The proposed expansion of the General Duty Clause is necessary to protect our members’ health. Plus, the improvement of conditions will provide a number of benefits to CUNY, like less resistance to in-person work and enhanced student satisfaction – definitely a positive change in a time of dropping enrollment.
CUNY should demonstrate best practices by adhering to existing standards and guidelines that are widely recognized and authoritative.
An example of this is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ recently released “Standard 241, Control of Infectious Aerosols,” which applies the lessons learned during COVID to formulate recommendations to reduce hazards in occupiable spaces, including universities.
This standard employs a new framework, the “equivalent clean air concept,” which permits flexibility in the controls being instituted while maintaining the goal of reducing the risk of illness. Implementing this internationally recognized guidance would protect the occupants from all airborne pathogens, not just COVID, thereby reducing sick time for employees and students alike.
It would also give CUNY flexibility in how it attains the goal of equivalent clean air, something that should be welcome when existing ventilation systems have performance limitations (e.g., some HVAC systems can’t take above MERV 8 filters, but could meet the goal of achieving equivalent clean air by increasing flow rates and/or modifying the amount of outdoor air).
The second change we are demanding is to remove the language stipulating that health and safety grievances cannot proceed beyond Step 2. Instead, they should be handled like other grievances.
The current practice is out of alignment with other unions. For example, both the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Association use the same procedure with progression to arbitration, for all grievances.
The current practice is not effective based on what we’ve seen with grievances around mold and indoor air problems – they’ve languished. This is not fair to our members and it does not resolve situations.
With the knowledge that health and safety grievances do not effectively move forward, employees resort to other mechanisms such as PESH complaints, 311 calls and reaching out to the news media.
We believe the change to the standard grievance procedure in place, which permits progression to arbitration, would be an improvement over the current truncated procedure.
The third change we bring forward is in regard to the reporting of conditions at CUNY sites. A compelling reason for this demand comes from the leaks we saw after this fall’s rain event where buckets were everywhere at CUNY. These weren’t new leaks, just old ones made obvious because of the amount of rainfall, but they amply demonstrated the problems with our infrastructure.
These deficiencies will need to be addressed through capital funding, and all of us are aware that will take time.
In the meantime, a system of public reporting would alleviate growing concerns among students, staff and faculty about their safety and their work conditions. Our members are knowledgeable when it comes to their working conditions.
For example, due to COVID, there is now a very high level of awareness of the importance of good ventilation. Many people now know that 6 ACH and 100% outdoor air is the goal, and that MERV 13 or higher filtration is essential.
We’ve already had proof of concept of the benefits of reporting when several campuses posted their ventilation data (ACH, filtration, outside air).
Members noticed when the data appeared; they also noticed when it was removed.
Accordingly, we request that specific information about ventilation, water and facilities maintenance be made available to our members.
We would welcome an internet-based dashboard page that consolidates the following environmental data. We acknowledge that some of this information is already distributed in emails, but based on numerous meetings between our members and the Administration, messages get misdirected or are difficult to locate (multiple senders, etc.). A unified, easy-to-find page on the school’s website could provide all of this in one location.
Each semester, we expect:
- Ventilation by room (ACH, filtration, percentage of outside air) – based, at a minimum, on ASHRAE Core Recommendations for Reducing Airborne Infectious Aerosol Exposure. If ASHRAE Standard 241 is instituted, we request data on how the equivalent clean air was achieved.
- Water quality – results of drinking water tests at point of delivery (drinking fountains) using “EPA method 200.7 Determination of Metals and Trace Elements,” “EPA method 200.8 Determination of Trace Elements” and tests for coliform bacteria as performed by an accredited laboratory.
- Legionella – data demonstrating adherence to the New York State cooling tower requirements, including Legionella culture analysis and disinfection records, and links to New York City’s cooling tower inspections.
As needed, we expect:
- Advance notification of activities such as construction, asbestos abatement, pest control, cleaning, disinfection or other activities that may involve the use of substances that may be hazardous.
- Prompt notification regarding the status of work orders relating to the workplace environment with regular updates. Here, we’re not referring to simple repairs but posting notifications of work that relates to health and safety conditions for all to see and follow. Depending on the work order system (there are many of them at CUNY), often only the filer of the request has access, and in addition, not all are permitted to file work orders. Therefore a public transparent version is needed.
- Information on maintenance of HVAC systems (age of systems, dates of repairs or upgrades, dates of filter replacements).
- Information on repairs to leaky roofs and windows, and degraded plumbing systems that may contribute to water intrusion and mold growth.
- Details about mold remediation, including whether such remediation has been done by a licensed contractor as required by law.
- Notification when there are limitations in ADA accessibility, including but not limited to compliant bathrooms, entries, lifts or elevators.
- Links to Safety Data Sheets on products used for cleaning, disinfection, pest control, mold remediation, etc. (OSHA Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200 (g)).
- Advance notification of electrical work that may cause outages, or HVAC work that may interfere with heating or cooling.
These are not hypothetical needs. Each of these examples comes from an actual situation where poor facilities maintenance compromised our members’ safety because of an unsafe work environment.
Reporting and transparency are increasingly part of the future in all aspects of life. We would like to see CUNY as a leader, not as a reluctant follower, when providing information about the state of the physical plant.
A possible direction comes from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It has created the Model State Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Act, which is a framework to develop legislation aimed at improving IAQ in all public buildings, including universities. Although just released, it’s gaining traction, and among the recommendations is one that building owners post the results of indoor air quality on publicly accessible websites.
The fourth change addresses joint labor-management committees on health and safety. While the current version of Article 39.1 establishes a joint committee on health and safety, there are no requirements that it conduct meetings. This change corrects that deficiency by requiring two meetings per semester.
This change is clearly needed, as the joint committee has not met since prior to the pandemic. The meetings are valued, as they foster communication, and the shared knowledge can be put to constructive use.
We also call for campus-based health and safety labor-management committees. These have existed on an ad hoc basis and have campus-level benefits similar to those seen with the joint committee.
There is precedent for the model of CUNY-wide and campus-based health and safety labor-management committees in other contracts, which provide for both system-level and local health and safety committees.
In summary, what we bring forward provides a communicative and collaborative health and safety framework – starting with an enhanced and more protective version of the General Duty Clause accompanied by better communication through joint health and safety committees at the campus and CUNY-wide levels, along with a mechanism for greater data transparency and a grievance process that all will view as more effective.
Jean Grassman is an associate professor of environmental, occupational and geospatial health sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. She also serves as the organizational secretary on the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. A version of this piece was delivered in-person to the CUNY bargaining team.
Published: November 15, 2023