Sickness at Student Central

Staff members getting ill from poor air quality conditions

Ayame Ulrich

For months, staff at Student Central have been getting sick. Symptoms include itchy eyes, runny noses and headaches; however, staff find relief when away from the school.

Concluding that their illnesses are workplace related, they brought their concerns to the attention of University of Winnipeg administration, according to an email sent to The Uniter by a U of W employee who asked that their name be withheld from publication.

The employees’ conditions worsened, and no response from the university had been received. Staff took sick days off and several students complained of the smell and feeling ill while in the vicinity of Student Central.

After staff threatened to take the matter to Safework Manitoba, air quality tests were conducted in the area.

“These tests did find some elevated amounts of dust in the back office area, as well as higher levels of dryness, but did not identify anything harmful,” said Laurel Repski, vice-president of human resources, audit and sustainability for the U of W, in a statement to The Uniter.

“We are now taking steps to address the dust and potentially the humidity levels in the area as recommended by the external expert to try and address the concerns.”

The email sent to The Uniter by the Student Central staffer stated that symptoms are continuing to worsen.

“The symptoms now include bleeding noses, hives and rashes, in addition to all other symptoms noted above,” the source wrote.

The email also adds that several different inspectors have come up with various explanations for their sickness. Some say humidifiers will not help, some say the ducts need to be cleaned and others think that the staff is delusional, according to the source.

President and vice-chancellor of the U of W Dr. Lloyd Axworthy did not know about the staff illnesses.

“When starting to fix these old buildings, most of the work being done in the 1960s, there’s nothing more expensive than replacing the HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) systems,” Axworthy said.

In terms of renovations, the university wants to do them in the most sustainable way possible.

“We did a comprehensive facility audit of the campus over the summer, looking for opportunities for money savings and air quality improvements ... the audit just came in last week so we haven’t had much time to prepare any plans yet,” said Alana Lajoie-O’Malley, director of the Campus Sustainability Office at the U of W.

The university maintains that progress is being made to fix these issues, even offering the option to relocate the staff until the problem is solved.

“The ducts are being cleaned, and there will be additional testing done, at which point there will likely be the need to install some small humidifiers,” Repski said.

Nevertheless, employees at Student Central are still working in these conditions, and a meeting about their illnesses is scheduled for this week.

“Air quality is a crucial part of workplace safety and people can get a variety of respiratory illnesses from unclean air, especially in high traffic areas,” said Michael Mass of Praxair Canada Inc., a company specializing in air quality.

Published in Volume 65, Number 14 of The Uniter (December 2, 2010)

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