If you do not know what the Joint Occupational Health and Safety committee(JOHS) is I would not be surprised. The JOHS is a joint employee/employer committee mandated by law to be established in work places. In January of 2010 the Cape Breton Faculty Association(CBUFA) pulled its members from this committee. I applaud this action taken by our union and hope that it is the first step in reforming a committee that, in my opinion, is completely dysfunctional and more interested in the appearance of safety.
One significant problem with the JOHS is the composition of the committee. The legislation dictates that the committee is to be at a minimum 50% employee. With the exception of the CBUFA members and CUPE representatives, the remaining employee members are contract workers or staff members whose supervisor sits on the committee as an employer member. During my time on the JOHS these employee members did not get involved in issues or take sides. Thus health and safety issues were often left to the CBUFA members to deal with and involved debating with a skewed number of employer members.
While I was not a member of this committee when CBUFA pulled its members from this committee I did serve on the JOHS for more than two years. My experience on this committee gives me insight into as why CBUFA may have pulled its membership. When I joined the JOHS the dysfunction on this committee became apparent. One of the first issues was a scent sensitivity complaint. The employer members of the JOHS who have served on this committee for many years suggested forming a subcommittee to draft a scent policy. I joined this subcommittee and began researching scent policies at other universities. To my surprise one of the first universities I found to have a scent policy was our very own CBU. When I informed the members of the JOHS of this fact I expected embarrassment but instead observed members patting themselves on the back for having the initiative to draft a scent policy that already existed. When I questioned if the measures described in the scent policy had been carried out, such as education sessions, I learned that they had not. This one incident was replayed over and over again where the employer members appear to be more interested in drafting a policy or revising a policy when a problem arises. Often the problem was not the result of a faulty policy but due to the fact that nobody had been following existing policies.
One issue of great importance to me and that truly demonstrates the dysfunction of the JOHS committee is the issue of asbestos. Our university like most building built in the 1970’s contains asbestos in areas such as floor tiles, pipe insulation and in walls. Asbestos is a fiber like material that once airborne can cause debilitating health ailments which do not become symptomatic until 15-20 years. In other words you could be exposed to asbestos and would not taste it or observe any ill health affects for a decade or two. Prior to joining the JOHS the department of labor(DOL) was called in to address an asbestos complaint and ordered the employer to draft a new asbestos policy that was ultimately approved by the JOHS. A key elements of this asbestos policy was the conducting of an “annual” asbestos assessment. In other words each year a visual inspection of all asbestos containing areas is to be done.
In 2007 I became secretary of the JOHS committee and one of my duties included getting a copy of the annual asbestos assessment. Memos were written from the JOHS to facilities management, to get a copy of this assessment and after many months it was learned that this assessment had not been done but was scheduled to be done that summer. During the May 2007 JOHS meeting the discussion began with the statement that “mini” asbestos assessments had been done. When it was correctly pointed out that an assessment of “all” asbestos containing areas was to be done the employer changed the discussion to what is meant by the term “annual.” However, this discussion quickly ended when the question was asked when the last assessment had been done and it had been disclosed that it was more than a decade. Ultimately the assessment was done revealing several problem areas that included some asbestos that had fallen off a pipe onto the ceiling tile below. The JOHS also agreed that the term “annual” would refer to a twelve(12) month period. A year later in 2008 a copy of the asbestos assessment had been requested and this too was not done. Only after repeated requests was the assessment for 2008 ultimately done. When I asked that the minutes reflect the fact that the 2008 assessment was late one of the employer members remarked, “Whose nose are you trying to rub this into?”
I could bore you with countless examples similar to those described above but the conclusion would be the same.
So who is to blame for the apparent dysfunction of the JOHS committee? Some of the blame can go to the employer. The dysfunction of this committee does benefit the employer as they are minimizing costs in dealing with Health and Safety issues by addressing them on a superficial level.
Ultimately, a good portion of the blame for the dysfunctional JOHS committee must go to the employees and in particular CBUFA. This is a joint employer/employee committee and the employees must share in the dysfunction. For years the CBUFA membership have not made Occupation Health and Safety a priority and have been indifferent to the JOHS and the dysfunction on this committee. When it was announced during the CBUFA annual general meeting that we have walked off the JOHS, there was no discussion or questions and this issue took at most a minute. Another agenda item involving whether or not there should be a fall reading week took up a great deal of time during this same meeting. Nothing against this issue but it does illustrate where the priorities of the membership are in relation to health and safety.
The impression of indifference of CBUFA to health and safety has been left on the employer which has embolden them and allowed them to obstruct, stone wall, and simply mistreat any individual that disagrees with them on Health and Safety. When I was on the JOHS I was often accused of “personalizing” an issue and having my conduct put into question. These accusations were false but allowed the employer to change the topic and discredit me and thus avoid dealing with a Health and Safety Issue and the cost associated with it. It is easy to discredit anyone when they stand alone. The purpose of unions is to prevent such treatment of employees. Unfortunately this is not the case when it comes to health and safety.
Senior Lab Instructor, Chemistry