Because of rising asthma numbers, teachers and cleaning staff should make sure that classrooms are ventilated adequately and dusted regularly.
The school year is back in full swing for millions of students across the nation trying to remember the names of their new teachers, what time lunch is served, and how to navigate the hallways and stairwells to get from one classroom to the next.
Meanwhile, those responsible for keeping those education facilities clean, safe and well-maintained have to be vigilant to remove or minimize the numerous potential health and safety hazards that may be lurking in those classrooms and corridors, especially if workers haven't adopted effective procedures for cleaning and maintaining schools.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a guide, "Sensible Steps to Healthier School Environments," to help custodial and maintenance workers ward off potential facility problems and provide a safe and healthful education facility.
"Healthier school environments enable children to learn and produce more in the classroom, which can improve their performance and achievements later in life," the guide states.
Some of the suggested steps for monitoring and improving the school environment:
Asbestos. Federal law requires schools to inspect their facilities for building material that contains asbestos, and establish management plans to prevent or minimize hazards related to the material. The guide recommends that schools review their management plans with all building operations and management staff so that they better understand how to minimize potential disturbance of asbestos-containing material.
Workers also should make sure they do not cut, scrape, gouge, drill or physically disturb material that contains asbestos. They should let their supervisors know immediately if they have concerns that asbestos-containing material has sustained damage or is deteriorating.
Asthma. Schools should switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products, which are less likely to have strong chemical odors that can trigger or exacerbate asthma symptoms. Teachers and cleaning staff should make sure that classrooms are ventilated adequately and dusted regularly. Items that tend to attract dust should be washed frequently.
Carbon monoxide. To ensure that gas-burning appliances, such as stoves, furnaces and water heaters, are working properly and ventilated to the outside, schools should conduct yearly inspections. Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed near equipment that burns natural gas, oil, wood or gas.
Chemical management. Toxic or hazardous chemicals should be stored in appropriate containers in a ventilated, fire-resistant, locked area or cabinet. Workers should label containers with the name of the material and when it entered the school facility. A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)for each product should be readily available in a binder near the chemical storage area.
The maintenance staff should examine a school's chemical inventory on a regular basis and remove chemicals that pose a health, safety or environmental risk, or that are unnecessary or outdated. Schools should ensure that proper training is provided to staff members involved with chemical management and to students using toxic or hazardous chemicals.
Indoor air quality. Workers should regularly check building ventilation systems to make sure they are working properly. A school should establish a schedule for maintaining unit ventilators, replacing air filters, and cleaning supply air diffusers, return registers and outside air intakes. Condensate pans need to be kept clean, unobstructed and properly drained. Unit ventilators should be kept clear of books, papers and other items that can obstruct air flow.
To help schools make sure that air quality issues are being monitored and addressed properly, the EPA recommends that schools should establish a management program such as the agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program.
Lead. If a school was constructed before 1978, there's a good chance it contains lead paint, the EPA says. Deteriorating lead paint can expose students and staff to lead poisoning. To reduce such exposure, maintenance workers should examine interior walls and surfaces for paint that is cracking, chipping or peeling. Areas on doors or windows where painted surfaces rub together also should be checked. Workers also should check exterior areas for flaking paint and make sure it is not contaminating nearby soil where students might play.