Crippled by damp classroom

A mouldy classroom left one teacher with debilitating health problems. Through her union's journal to members, she urged others to speak out. Following the heavy rains and floods of the summer of 2011, and more problems with mould in schools and other workplaces, the AEU gave OHS Reps@Work permission to reprint the article.

Story by Rachel Power, AEU News (February, 2010)

In June 2006 Australian Education Union (AEU) member Jane (not her real name), a secondary teacher in her mid-30s,suffered a massive asthma attack at work — the first she had experienced since she was 19. Back at work after a short break, she found her health deteriorating until she wound up in intensive care for three days with life-threatening symptoms.

"[The attack] was so violent, so strong, that my body went into shutdown," she says. One of the doctor's first questions was whether she worked in a mouldy or dusty environment. She immediately thought of the classroom she taught in at her school in Melbourne's south-east.

"I'd noticed the mould for quite some time — the carpet was so rank there were mushrooms growing — but it didn't occur to me that that was harmful," she says. Her doctor refused to give her clearance to return to the school. Since then, ongoing health issues have forced her to substantially change her lifestyle, move to part-time work and take a significant pay cut.Spores on her lungs have left her with breathing problems and voice troubles that will probably rule out teaching altogether in the near future.

Help from the AEU enabled Jane to make a WorkCover claim that has resulted in a disability payout recognising 30% impairment. "Without the union I wouldn't have got a quarter of what I got," she says. She claims that damp was a problem throughout the school — "Every roof in that school leaked" — and breathing problems were common among staff and students.

AEU branch president Mary Bluett said the case was part of the legacy of "decades of neglect" by successive governments following the building boom of the 1950s and 60s. "It's an indictment of those governments that they deemed it not a priority to provide their employees and students with healthy, modern working and learning environments. That is one reason the AEU campaigned at the last state election for a commitment to rebuild or modernise every school in the state."

AEU OHS officer Janet Marshall said the situation should never have arisen. It is well known that certain substances in workplaces can cause or trigger asthma or allergic reactions. "Mould growth indoors can have harmful effects on health. Employers must act to protect the health and safety of employees and others and this means eliminating problems at the source as well as maintaining buildings and property in good order."

Every workplace should have an elected Health and Safety Rep, who has legal powers under the OHS Act 2004 to intervene in such situations. For Jane, the damage is done. But her concern for students and colleagues remains. She urges others not to wait for something to go wrong, even if the risk seems small.

"Speak up. You can't turn back time. If you think there's an unsafe practice at the school, go straight to the union."

More information on Mould. AEU website

Last amended February 2015