Manitoba public schools were reprimanded for shoddy electrical work, missing first aid kits and allowing asbestos to become airborne, among unsafe conditions provincial investigators uncovered in 2022-23.
Last summer, the department of workplace safety and health added school divisions to its index of “high-risk industries” — a group with significantly higher-than-average employee injury rates.
The label is usually reserved for construction, manufacturing and other heavy labour sectors. It has bumped up K-12 buildings on the province’s list of inspection priorities.
“To tell you the truth, it’s not surprising that schools were added to that list,” said Nathan Martindale, president of Manitoba Teachers’ Society. “Many divisions have had to put off maintenance and much-needed repairs.”
A provincial database shows officials issued four stop-work orders during the latest school year.
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The River East Transcona School Division was disciplined in March for lacking safeguards on machinery at Murdoch McKay Collegiate in Winnipeg.
Northern Manitoba’s Frontier School Division received three serious penalties for general safety issues, timely equipment inspection and non-electricians doing electrical work in April.
A workplace safety spokesperson said the department proactively picked school sites to investigate and undertook probes in response to tips or incidents that required follow-up.
Between Sept. 1, 2022, and April 1, 2023, provincial officers found more than 350 violations in dozens of facilities located in 12 different districts, according to a report obtained by the Free Press via freedom of information access.
The Winnipeg School Division racked up the most violations, with a total of 102 improvement orders during that period, followed by Fort La Bosse, Portage la Prairie, Pembina Trails, River East Transcona and Louis Riel districts with 53, 52, 43, 34 and 33, respectively.
The most common infractions include insufficient personal protective equipment, an absence of tool and machine safeguards, and non-existent or incomplete workplace health and safety committees.
Some schools were penalized for not having enough trained first aid responders or corresponding kits. Others were ordered to start posting harassment policies or begin providing new employees with orientations about site-specific hazards.
The Brandon School Division at-large was found to be failing employees with inadequate reporting on serious incidents and investigation practices.
Winnipeg-based College Beliveau and Nelson McIntyre Collegiate were disciplined for not preventing asbestos from becoming airborne.
An investigator determined Reston School, located near Virden in Fort La Bosse, had poor air quality and ventilation.
What this data does not show is the prevalence of student-on-school staff violence, Martindale said, adding those incidents often go unreported or under-reported.
The teachers society president cited a number of reasons for that reality, including employees lacking the time, know-how or energy to fill out paperwork, as well as an absence of motivation to do so, because they do not think making a disclosure will make a difference.
Leaders from the teachers society and Canadian Union of Public Employees — Manitoba both indicated “underfunding” has resulted in deferred maintenance and growing class sizes, in turn heightening the likelihood of staff injuries and violence on the job.
“The provincial government appears more concerned with tax cuts and rebate cheques for political points than with the safety and well-being of our schools,” said Gina McKay of CUPE Manitoba, whose membership includes roughly 6,000 school support staff.
The teachers union has been collecting feedback from members about their challenges at work and sharing them on social media through its #RealTeacherTalkMB campaign.
“I’ve had a recycling bin thrown at my head and a basketball thrown at my face… Where’s the trauma support for teachers?” states one anonymous post.
Manitoba requires employers to compile annual reports on violent incidents and the results of investigations into these events.
The Prairie Rose School Division, in addition to Winnipeg’s Fort Richmond and Murdoch McKay high schools, were ordered to start meeting tracking obligations earlier this year.
Manitoba Education Minister Wayne Ewasko reiterated the province’s commitment to student and staff safety and health in a statement Friday.
Ewasko also touted the province’s “historic investments” in operating funding — which is up 6.1 per cent overall, with all divisions receiving increases in 2023-24 after a half-dozen years of many recording year-over-year decreases — and capital projects.
“That being said, we know that not every issue in the sector can be linked to funding,” he said in a statement.
The minister noted provincial officials are co-ordinating presentations with superintendents and safety co-ordinators to relay and discuss inspection results.
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