Published in the October 2015 NJEA Review
by Adrienne Markowitz and Eileen Senn
Custodial and maintenance
employees are truly the
guardians of safety and
health for students, staff
and the community.
One of their most important responsibilities
is to help districts ensure good indoor
air quality, uniform temperatures and
healthful ventilation in the over 2,500
school buildings in New Jersey.
Given that schools are four times more
densely populated than office buildings and
often have old ventilation systems, this is a
huge challenge. Because they work directly
with them, custodians suffer the highest
exposures to chemical products used in
floor care, glass cleaning, disinfection, and
indoor and outdoor pest control.
Purchasing and using only least-toxic
products for these tasks would protect not
just custodians but every member of the
MANY AND DIVERSE DUTIES AND HAZARDS
Custodial educational support professionals
(ESPs) include custodians, housekeepers,
building and grounds maintenance
staff, laborers, helpers, warehouse personnel,
mechanics and non-managerial supervisors.
Their workloads continue to grow as
new technology and equipment requires
new skills and increased duties and responsibilities.
For example, maintaining central
heating, ventilation and air conditioning
(HVAC) systems is completely different
from maintaining boilers and radiators
and under-window unit ventilators. And
maintaining artificial turf is different than
traditional lawn maintenance.
In addition to the cleaning duties most
often associated with custodial jobs, custodians
perform a wide array of other tasks,
such as disinfecting for contagious disease
prevention, preparing garden beds for
botany courses, making electrical repairs,
cleaning up laboratory and other spills, and
plastering and painting. Custodians work
at heights on ladders and staging and in
confined spaces such as boilers and crawl
spaces. They are exposed to noise and exhaust
from portable tools and equipment
such as leaf blowers, lawn mowers and lawn
Custodians do a lot of heavy physical
work — handling trash, clearing snow,
polishing floors, and rolling out and pushing
back bleachers — that requires lifting,
pushing, pulling and twisting. Because of
these diverse hazards, custodians are at risk
for falls, cuts and abrasions, hernias and
back injuries, hearing loss, and electrical
shock and electrocution.
Finally, custodians must deal with occupational
health hazards such as heat and
cold stress, mold, cleaning and disinfection
chemicals, paints, solvents and other hazardous
materials, and the lead paint and
asbestos still present in many older school
buildings. These exposures put them at
risk for occupational diseases from dermatitis
to asthma to cancer.
Custodians and the entire school community
are at risk from polychlorinated
biphenyls, or PCBs in pre-1978 caulk and
pre-1979 fluorescent light ballasts. See the
sidebar for news of an alarming recent
rollback of protections from PCBs.
STAFFING CUTS AND PRIVATIZATION
Budget pressures in some school districts
have led to cuts in custodial staff and
privatization and the contracting out of
custodial services. These cuts are shortsighted
for at least two reasons — they
lead to the physical deterioration of
school facilities, and expose custodians
to greater safety risks. This happens when
jobs that should be done by at least two
people are attempted by custodians working
alone, when custodians perform work
outside their job descriptions and when
custodians work too fast to meet unreasonable
LOCAL ASSOCIATION ACTION PLAN
Local associations should work with their
UniServ field representatives to safeguard
custodians, and thus the whole school
community, in meaningful ways. Key demands
- Written job descriptions that include
health and safety protections and procedures.
- An end to privatization attempts and
cutbacks in custodial staff.
- Dollies, hand trucks or carts for heavy
- Walk-off mats at every entrance to
- Purchase of least-toxic cleaning products.
- Cleaning methods that don't raise
dust, such as wet wiping and mopping,
microfiber mopping and high-efficiency
particulate air (HEPA) vacuuming.
- Training in back-injury prevention
and proper lifting.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
for eyes, face, feet, hands and more when
- Specific training on state and federal
safety and health regulations on confined
space entry, electrical lockout/tagout, fall
protection, bloodborne pathogens, PPE,
Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and
hazard communication on asbestos, lead,
PCBs, solvents and paints, cleaning products
and so forth.
Adrienne Markowitz holds a Master of Science
in Industrial Hygiene from Hunter College, City
University of New York. Eileen Senn holds a
Master of Science in Occupational Health from
Temple University in Philadelphia. They are consultants
with the New Jersey Work Environment
Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA
on school health and safety concerns.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- Webpage: “Cleaning industry,” Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
- Manual: Janitorial Safety Training Guide, Commission
on Health and Safety and Workers’
Compensation, State of California, 2009.
- Article: “Lead paint in schools demands scrutiny,”
NJEA Reporter, January 2011, Page 12. http://bit.ly/leadpaintschools
- Article: “Protection crucial for custodians,”
NJEA Reporter, November 2013, Page 8.
- Brochure: NJEA Health and Safety Facts – Asbestos
hazards in schools.
- Press Release: “EPA Stealth Rollback of School
PCB Safeguards,” Aug. 20, 2015, Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility.
- Article: “Old caulk presents PCB risk,” NJEA
Reporter, February 2010, Page 7.
- Article: “Old fluorescent fixtures pose risk,”
NJEA Reporter, June 2011, Page 6.
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2015-16 NJEA REVIEW Articles
2014-15 NJEA REVIEW Articles
2013-14 NJEA Reporter Articles
2012-13 NJEA Reporter Articles
2011-12 NJEA Reporter Articles
For an alphabetical list of past articles on a variety of health and safety issues, see this index.