Certain times of year bring sniffles, watery eyes, stuffy heads, and coughing fits. These could be symptoms of allergies, or in some instances, signs of more serious issues. The exposure source could be outside, at home, in the car, at school, or any combination of these locations. While there are limited options for managing outdoor air quality, school officials do have the ability and responsibility to provide healthy Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) for all staff and students.
Indoor air pollution is consistently ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health from major scientific agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Lung Association (ALA). Research also tells us that well-managed IAQ is an important component of a healthy indoor environment and can help schools reach their primary goal of educating children. The health and comfort of students and staff are among the many factors that contribute to learning and productivity in the classroom, which in turn affect performance and achievement.
Where do you start?
Maintaining good IAQ requires a consistent and coordinated management approach that provides for educating everyone who occupies the building and establishing routine inspection and maintenance policies.
- Support and promote a district-wide IAQ management program through policies and processes.
- Educate staff, students, and parents about the importance of good IAQ and their role in making the school environment as healthy as possible.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel when considering an institution-wide action plan. Instead, take advantage of the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools guidance and action tool kit.
The Tools for Schools program has been tested and proven for decades to be a well-tailored and comprehensive IAQ management system that works well in the school environment. It will help you identify and implement the building blocks to improving your IAQ: however, long-term success is achieved by consistent, top-level support from all departments in the district. Turnover and retirement happens, but a successful program cannot be retired if the management commitment is maintained.
Is it really that simple?
Say you develop some internal IAQ taskforce teams, educate your staff, and implement basic preventative maintenance practices. Occupant complaints or symptoms should be easy to address, right? Not always. Indoor air problems can be sneaky and do not always produce easily recognized impacts on health, well-being, or the facilities. Reported symptoms may be caused by factors other than air quality deficiencies, such as lighting, stress, or noise. Students and staff have varying sensitivities and exposure to IAQ problems can affect people in different ways. IAQ problems may affect a group of people or just one individual.
In many ways, solving IAQ problems is a game of ruling out factors or sources. It is not as simple as taking a sample, sending it to the lab, and finding out whether or not some component is present. It is difficult to determine the cause of IAQ issues through air sampling and it can result in spending unnecessary resources. Indoor air quality is affected by so many different sources, and our occupants have different sensitivities to those sources. You have to be patient, be thorough, and be comprehensive in your investigation. The key is to have processes in place that will expedite complaints or concerns, initiate investigation, and coordinate response actions until the issues can be discovered and resolved.
With regards to IAQ investigations, the complaints or symptoms appear to be main issue. However, responding to complaints in a timely manner and with authentic concern is essential. Effective listening and explaining response actions will help school officials build and maintain trust with stakeholders. Even if an initial complaint was about physical symptoms, emotional symptoms can result from improper response or handling. Work with your designated public information officer to develop and deliver appropriate and messaging. Follow best practices to ensure personal and medical information is kept private and only key personnel have access.
Related issues to consider
When staff report symptoms or complaints related to possible exposure to indoor allergens, chemicals, or mold, check with your workers’ compensation provider to file a first report of injury (FROI). TASB Risk Management Fund Workers’ Compensation members can initiate a FROI online or by calling 800.482.7276.
All school districts and community colleges must implement active emergency management programs and plans that include how to disseminate information to the public and how to respond to widespread health-related issues. The TASB Risk Management Fund’s Emergency Management Program can help with these requirements.
Each school district or community college should have a student privacy plan in place to ensure the privacy of sensitive student information and handling of such data. Get started on your student privacy plan with this helpful checklist from the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) of the U.S. Department of Education. The Fund also provides Privacy & Information Security coverage to Liability and Property members at no additional cost. For more information, visit the Fund website.
For more information about Indoor Air Quality, contact Senior Risk Solutions Consultant Joanie Arrott at 512.505.2838.