Schools added to Manitoba list of high-risk industries


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Schools are now listed alongside foundries, sawmills and excavation sites as Manitoba’s most “high-risk industries” — a distinction that has historically been reserved for manufacturing and other labour-intensive sectors.

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Schools are now listed alongside foundries, sawmills and excavation sites as Manitoba’s most “high-risk industries” — a distinction that has historically been reserved for manufacturing and other labour-intensive sectors.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said one educational assistant, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity to protect his employment in the Winnipeg School Division.

“A lot of injuries aren’t reported because they are considered ‘not serious.’ Scratching, hitting and more (happen) on a daily basis, mostly in elementary school where you’re told it’s just ‘part of the job,’ but not for teachers.”

Manitoba’s workplace safety and health department recently updated and expanded its index of job fields with “significantly higher than average” numbers of employee injuries per capita.

The only additions to the roster not construction or manufacturing-related are schools and school divisions, and transportation.

The overall time-loss injury rate per 100 full-time workers provincewide was 2.5 per cent in 2020, followed by 2.7 per cent in 2021. Among the local education workforce, those figures were 3.9 and 4.2, respectively.

The most common injury in K-12 schools is classified by the Workers Compensation Board as “strains, sprains and tears,” communications officer Marlene Gockel said.

The WCB is tasked with overseeing school-related claims brought forward by EAs, custodians and bus drivers.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society manages reports separately. The union, which represents upwards of 16,000 public school educators, did not provide data upon request.

The province adjusted its high-risk list without much fanfare, shortly before the 2022-23 academic year got underway, and as a result of enhanced data-sharing between the department and WCB. There are now a total of 30 sectors posted, up from 24.

A provincial spokesperson indicated injury and illness data is reviewed regularly and the department posts “current and pending priorities for enforcement on the website to foster awareness and proactive compliance.”

Citing the fact the WCB’s preliminary 2022 records suggest school-related injuries are on the rise, the spokesperson said the province has reached out to select divisions to request additional information to inform and focus its enforcement efforts accordingly.

Local leaders from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, whose membership include roughly 6,000 school support staff employed across more than 25 public boards in Manitoba, have been meeting to discuss the growing issue of workplace violence in recent months.

“These are systemic issues; it’s nothing new,” said Gina McKay, president of CUPE Manitoba.

“We’ve heard about physical violence in the workplace — biting, kicking, verbal abuse and worse, and we also look to some of the research that’s coming out across Canada.”

Seventy per cent of CUPE education support workers in Saskatchewan who participated in a spring 2019 poll of about 1,000 employees indicated they had experienced violence in their workplace in the three years prior to the survey. More than 40 per cent disclosed they did not report an incident or multiple violent events.

More recently, a trio of researchers from the University of Ottawa released a report on “the epidemic of violence against education sector workers,” based on research conducted with more than 3,800 CUPE school support and classroom-based employees in Ontario.

Nine out of 10 participants reported being subject to at least one act, attempt or threat of physical force from one or more sources — students, parents and colleagues, among them — during the 2018-19 school year.

Women face higher levels of harassment and violence than their male colleagues, while racialized workers experience higher rates of reprisal for reporting incidents compared to the overall workforce, per the November 2021 report.

McKay said CUPE continues to advocate for additional public dollars for the K-12 system so all schools are adequately staffed with EAs. These workers are facing growing and increasingly complex workloads as they support students recovering from COVID-19-related disruptions and anxieties while class sizes climb, she said.

“You can’t do the job without devoting a lot of yourself to it. It’s a very rewarding position, but it’s also very mentally — and can be physically — tough, and you definitely have to have your heart in the right place to do what we do on a daily basis,” said Dion Delorme, president of the union that represents EAs in the Seven Oaks School Division.

The experienced EA said it is not uncommon for support staff to be tasked with physically-demanding work, such as lifting students and pushing wheelchairs inside and outside, where conditions can be icy in winter months.

Students who have trouble regulating their emotions may also lash out and cause harm, said the union leader, who suggested the risk of injury on the job does not match pay.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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