Taking Action on Health and Safety at City College

By Jean Weisman, HEO Chapter, CCNY

CLARION

MAY 2001

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City College, originally located on 23rd Street and Lexington Ave., moved to 138th St. and Convent Ave. in l907 after the completion of five Neo-Gothic buildings. Today several of these buildings, including Harris Hall (named after CUNY founder Townsend Harris), are under constant renovation. Major construction projects are being conducted while students, faculty and staff continue to work inside. Unfortunately, the buildings’ decay and their repair have both created serious health and safety problems at CCNY.

In 1998, after receiving complaints from staff members about noise, dust and debris in Harris Hall, the leadership of the City College PSC chapter met with then-President Yolanda Moses, who agreed to stop all construction in the building while offices were located there. But during the summer and fall of 2000, the PSC again began to receive complaints about conditions in Harris Hall.

Staff members reported serious problems with ventilation as a result of the construction. Dust in the offices was a constant issue, and windows could not be opened during construction. People with asthma complained about difficulty breathing. There were also problems with asbestos removal, lack of heat, floods that damaged computer equipment and a foul smell that indicated gas. Staff members were especially worried about the impact of unhealthy conditions on pregnant women who work or study in the building.

Construction work at City College has caused health & safety problems.

After the PSC brought these issues to the attention of the administration, Vice-President Barbara Gliwa organized a meeting of administrators and staff who work in the building and some of the problems were addressed. High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters were installed, the heating system was turned on, and there were some other improvements. But there have been constant delays in a promised move to better quarters. Originally the programs located in Harris Hall were told they would moved during the summer of 2000. In October workers were told that all the programs (except SEEK) would move in January 2001—but the administration has now pushed this back to the summer of 2001.

During the fall of 2000, the PSC and District Council 37 began hearing complaints from employees working in another historic building, Baskerville Hall. There was no heat in a computer laboratory that is used by disabled students, and the centralized air conditioning and heating system was not in working order. Employees complained of dust in the air, dirt, mice, floods, smoke, fumes and holes in the walls and ceiling—to name a few. Problems of throat dryness, eye irritations, and headaches were common.

Chemistry Professor Mike Green, co-chair of the City College PSC chapter’s health and safety committee, conducted an inspection of Baskerville Hall last October. Green documented serious rodent infestation, the lack of heat, peeling of the ceiling, complaints from janitors who became ill after working for a couple of hours in the building and a sensation of burning in the eyes of other employees. In January of this year Russell Johnson, Safety Coordinator of District Council 37, conducted another inspection along with members and representatives of the two unions. His report cited mouse droppings around workers’ desks, an uncovered circuit box next to a stairwell and exposed pipes. Armed with these findings, representatives of DC 37 and PSC met with college administrators and it was agreed that staff members in the Department of Public Relations would be moved to another building. But other programs have remained in the building, and classrooms are still being used.

On March 8 the PSC organized an educational meeting at the campus with Professor David Kotelchuck, Director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at Hunter College and a PSC Health and Safety Officer, as the keynote speaker. Kotelchuck noted that at CUNY, health and safety problems related to construction and indoor air quality have become common, and the PSC has made them a priority. He discussed the occupational safety and health provision of the PSC contract and talked about the key role that local committees like the CCNY PSC chapter’s health and safety group can play in enforcing it. The PSC and DC 37 members and representatives attending the meeting decided to work together on forming a collaborative committee.

When union members have met with the administration to discuss these problems, management cites two roadblocks to solutions. They point out that the scarcity of funds at CUNY makes it hard to do the repairs that are required. Also, according to the PSC’s Mike Green: “While the administration has been cooperative, at least in agreeing to deal with problems, there is a university-wide problem with DASNY (the Dormitory Authority). DASNY is not under control of the college, and the contractors do not seem to understand what it means to have people working around them, especially for a university to be operating while construction is in progress. DASNY has an administration appointed directly by the Governor’s office, and seems to operate mainly to suit itself.” Green said that DASNY has presented “the most severe challenge” to health and safety activists at CCNY.

The PSC has made contract proposals that would strengthen provisions on occupational safety and health, and would include CUNY Health and Safety Officers in the bargaining unit. These provisions, as well as more resources for CUNY, would help resolve chronic problems such as the construction-related issues at City College. But even though problems still remain, health and safety activists at CCNY feel that they’ve started to make a difference.