This is the first in a series of articles that the VI Civil Service Association (VICSA) will be doing to accomplish our strategic goal of raising the awareness of Public Servants on various employment matters and advocating for improved occupational health and safety in the workplace. There are many things that we take for granted daily as it relates to the terms and conditions of our employment; one of them being employees’ right to a clean and safe work environment guaranteed by the Virgin Islands Labour Code and General Orders. The 1975 Labour Code labour policy section stated that “…employment conditions of workers should be those which serve to preserve their health, safety and welfare…” This policy was expanded and brought in line with international standards in the recently legislated regulations which we will discuss in further detail once a copy is received.
In 2009 the VICSA started a renewed campaign to address the poor air quality conditions in the Central Administration Building by writing several letters to the Governor and Ministry of Communications and Works expressing concerns about the impact the mould was having on employees’ health, employee productivity and personal lives. Healthy employees are productive employees and if a person is unable to function in their work environment, there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed urgently, and the quick fix of relocating affected employees outside of the location desisted. Such action promotes inefficiency due to isolated employees located outside the office disrupting normal workflow. The focus should be on long-term corrective action and preventative measures in remedying the root of the problem.
Since the new VICSA executive took office in 2009, we have found that the problem of indoor air pollution exists in other building around the BVI- other government and government leased buildings and office space. We have received numerous grievances from employees about working conditions that they perceive to be making them sick. Many are documented by physicians and in many cases told not to venture in the vicinity much less inside the building. Our aim, then, is to educate public servants and the public alike about what indoor air quality and why it is important that we pay attention to the issue of poor indoor air quality. According to WebMD.com, what is being encountered is called indoor air pollution and it is important note at this point that this is not just applicable to the workplace but all living spaces that we occupy on a regular basis – our homes, churches, schools, businesses, restaurants, even your car - and it important that we arm ourselves with the correct information to safeguard our health and that of our family to prevent serious chronic health conditions that have physical, psychological and financial costs beyond measure.
On the website the following was noted, “According to an article in the San Francisco Gate: ’The U.S. General Accounting Office has called indoor air pollution “one of the most serious environmental risks to human health,” yet no agency has authority to control pollutants in indoor air.’ Indoor air is 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air and we spend 90% of our time indoors.” This is a startling statement that calls for action and employees need to pay close attention to their work environment and learn as much as possible about occupational health and safety. First, let’s define some terms that we hear tossed around so we are clear on what we are speaking to. What is...?
An Allergy- an abnormal reaction of the body (immune system) to a previously encountered allergen introduced by inhalation, ingestion, injection, or skin contact. Symptoms may include itchy eyes, runny nose, wheezing, headaches, skin rash, or diarrhoea. Allergies are usually reactions to materials, smells, environmental agents (pollen, dust, pet dander, mould) that would not normally trigger a response by the immune system, which is why some people have an allergic reaction to, for example dust, and someone else in the same environment does not.
Mould - a growth of minute (small) fungi forming on vegetable or animal matter, commonly as a downy or furry coating, and associated with decay or dampness.
(Here is a sidebar for those that may wonder if there is a difference between mould and mildew - Mould and mildew have many similar characteristics, but they are different types of fungi, and are often different in colour and texture. Mould is often black, green, red or blue in colour while mildew is usually gray or white.)
Some moulds have toxins called mycotoxins that some people may be allergic to. Symptoms of a mould allergy may include headaches, asthma and coughing. Irritation of the eyes and throat may also occur as a result of breathing mould toxins. Toxic mould is black in colour. It can be dangerous to someone who is elderly or very young. It should also be avoided if you have a weakened immune system. Moulds are not always harmful; the antibiotic penicillin was created from the mould of the same name.
Based on the initial data from the VICSA employee health survey launched last year and varied discussion with employees, persons may be suffering from allergies and thinking it is the common cold or flu because of the similar symptoms. If you get a ‘cold’ more than once per month or a cough that doesn’t want to go away, and the condition gets progressively worse with every bout of illness, you should probably go to an allergist and/ or respiratory specialist and get tested. Too often we say “Oh it’s a bug going around”. There is a “bug” going around but not what you think it is. If someone has long term exposure to dangerous mould such as Stachybotrys or Chaetomium, they could suffer from a myriad of serious symptoms and illnesses such as:
- occupational asthma,
- chronic bronchitis,
- reduced lung capacity,
- learning disabilities,
- mental deficiencies,
- heart problems,
- multiple sclerosis,
- chronic fatigue,
- rheumatoid arthritis, and
- multiple chemical sensitivity.
We are encouraging persons to take seriously any symptoms they may be experiencing that are not normal for you and DO NOT accept sickness as a normal part of life. It’s important to know what the root of the problem is in order for treatment to be effective. Taking medication and continuing to work and live in a contaminated environment will make medication non-effective.
Due to the tropical climate that we live in where the norm year round is warm temperatures and high humidity, ideal conditions exist for mould to grow, outdoors and indoors. Indoor air pollution is a very real problem in the Virgin Islands (VI) due to several factors. The construction methods have changed over the last decade where ‘sheetrock’ or particle board is used more in building construction, especially in inner office partitions, which provides a surface for mould to grow if the right conditions exist. Mould needs a relative humidity above 50% to thrive and more and more offices are air-conditioned which, believe it or not, introduces moisture indoors because the cool temperatures cause water in the air to condense, increasing humidity levels. If A/C systems aren’t properly operated they themselves can become contaminated with mould. Once mould contamination has occurred it is next to impossible to get rid of it in building material such as sheetrock or wood and experts recommend fumigation or replacement. In extreme cases, we have found that in states like Florida that have a humid climate like the VI, whole houses are demolished due to mould infestation, thus we are advocating for prevention rather than cure as the financial costs can be exponential!
A safe and healthy work environment is every employee’s right, we all need to become advocates for occupational health and safety and lobby for the necessary changes. Several things can be done to improve indoor air quality in any office and more information will be shared in upcoming articles. Here are some initial areas for attention:
o Pay attention to your office spaces and report issues to supervisor or head of department such as wet ceiling tiles, visible condensation from A/C units, water leaks in roof or wall, visible mould growth and dust, and mouldy smells/dusty odours. Storage of file boxes under desk can pose both a health and safety hazard and files should be properly stored.
o Every office should have a cleaning routine where offices are cleaned thoroughly daily. Research has shown that carpet is a “host site” for allergens like dust and mould and should be avoided. Vacuums with a HEPA filter are the best type to use to prevent recirculation of dust in the air. Air conditioning systems should be regularly maintained and air filters changed often. Dust mites and mould love moisture. Keeping humidity around 30%-50% helps keep them and other allergens under control and some offices may need to install a dehumidifier that helps reduce moisture in indoor air and effectively controls allergens. Most office buildings are air-tight and there isn’t a fresh air intake thus cleaning methods should go beyond just dusting. More information to come on ways to improve indoor air quality.
o Similar to the work environment, check out your home environment for sources of allergens and correct any problems.
o As we mentioned earlier, you can have allergies and not know it until a serious illness sets in. Don’t take your health for granted and if for no other reason, a healthy and safe office is part of exceptional service delivery. World class service to the public should be conducted in a world-class environment.
The VICSA Employee Health survey is still in circulation and can be downloaded from the website. In order for us to accurately represent what is happening in departments and ministries, an adequate number of surveys are needed to push for action. So if you haven’t filled out a form for your department go to www.virginislandscsa.com and submit one today! For more information on health and safety in the public service, you should contact the Health and Safety Unit in the Human Resources Department.
Illness is costly for both employee and employer and every option should be taken to maintain a healthy and safe workplace. A proactive policy is the best ounce of prevention and the VICSA will be lobbying for an occupational health and safety policy to ensure that there is a standard in place for all government offices regardless of their location; more communication from employer informing about the clean-up of the Central Administration Building and standard procedure for the maintenance and operation of government offices that provide a world-class environment for world-class service delivery.
Let us resolve to be part of the solutions and commit to doing your part in making the VI Public Service a place where top quality service is delivered to our fellow countrymen. Let us live the VICSA motto: Serve with Excellence to Secure the Future of the VI!!
Stay Tuned….the next article will cover sick buildings, tips on improving indoor air quality and testimonies of persons with occupational asthma.