Announcements: QUFA Update on Return to Campus

Dear QUFA Member,

Late last week, the university finally published their “Teaching Space Ventilation Review” on their ‘Ventilation Management at Queen’s’ website (https://www.queensu.ca/facilities/our-services/operations-maintenance/ventilation). QUFA has been actively seeking this information since January 2021 at Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) meetings. In the absence of such information, QUFA and the JHSC’s have been unable to respond to numerous questions and concerns raised by our Members regarding the safety of their working conditions particularly as they relate to teaching.

On the “Teaching Space Ventilation Review” website the university claims:

“While a secondary issue in managing COVID-19 risk, ventilation is nonetheless important in spaces where there will be large groups of people with no physical distancing, such as our classrooms. COVID-19 has not changed code or regulatory requirements for workplaces, nevertheless Queen’s University is following industry recommendations of the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) as well as public health best practices (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems in Buildings and COVID-19 (publichealthontario.ca)) to maintain and operate ventilation systems for buildings across campus. Queen’s ventilation management measures have been discussed with and endorsed by our public health experts.”

The website goes on the claim that:

“While there are no regulated targets for Equivalent Air Changes (eACH) per hour, the university undertook an analysis of the eACH in the approximately 550 teaching spaces on campus.”

QUFA takes issue with these statements as they are at best incredibly misleading and at worst deliberately false. First of all, the claim that there are no regulated targets for Equivalent Air Changes (eACH) per hour is contradicted by the very links that they provide. The Public Health Ontario’s website for Covid-19 Schools and Related Settings (https://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/diseases-and-conditions/infectious-diseases/respiratory-diseases/novel-coronavirus/school-resources) includes a document entitled: “COVID-19: Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems in Buildings” (https://www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/ncov/ipac/2020/09/covid-19-hvac-systems-in-buildings.pdf?sc_lang=en); indeed as noted above the university’s own website cites this very document. This document in the section titled “Air change rates required” cites the ASHRAE standard: “For other indoor settings, ASHRAE Standard 62.1 provides minimum ventilation rates for acceptable indoor air quality according to the type of setting (e.g., correctional facilities, offices, educational settings, hotels, food and beverage settings), occupancy and area.” So clearly there are regulated targets.

Furthermore, on their “Ventilation Management at Queen’s” website they make the claim that

“Queen’s University is following industry recommendations of the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)”, yet when you open that link you will find the statement that exposure reduction goals may be achieved by “… setting targets for equivalent clean air supply rate …” [something which the university has so far continued to refuse to do]. The one-page document goes on to specify the five things that need to be done, the last of which is “verify that HVAC systems are functioning as designed.” This last step is perhaps the most important of all because without measuring the actual performance of the HVAC system there can be no way of knowing how the system is actually performing. Unfortunately, the values listed in the ‘Teaching Space Ventilation Review’ on the university’s website do NOT represent measured performance, but only reflect the capability of the installed system under the best case scenario assuming that it is operating as designed and intended. Many of us who have taught in the sub-basement of Jeffery Hall for example know that the HVAC systems do not function anywhere near as intended when they were installed who knows how many years ago. When pressed on the issue the university admitted that: “A local Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) air balancing company has been retained to verify the air flows in a representative selection of over 40 rooms, inclusive of those in modern buildings. Verification began on August 23.”. That’s right, only a week before classes in the Faculty of Education were set to begin, the university finally initiated the most important ventilation step of validation, and only in 40 out of over 550 teaching spaces, to say nothing about common spaces such as the libraries, our offices or unit-controlled classrooms and meeting rooms. For these non-centrally-controlled rooms, it remains unclear if occupancy limits continue to be determined based on physical distancing requirements as has been the case so far through the pandemic.

This is not acceptable. Faculty have legitimate cause for concern about their employer’s ability to provide them with a safe workplace, as the employer is required to do under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Faculty who are concerned for their safety have the right to raise their concerns through the processes set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  The Joint Health and Safety Committees cannot exercise their statutory duties unless the University provides clear and accurate documentation for input and review.

I would also note that under the current Step 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan, indoor occupancy is limited to 50% of rated capacity. As a result, on Wednesday morning, the Faculty of Education announced (without informing or consulting QUFA) that: “We are still waiting for an announcement from the province regarding exceptions to social distancing in indoor classroom settings. As classes start on August 30th, we have made the decision that all classes, as well as the Opening Ceremony at 9am on August 30th, will be online the first week of class (August 30th – September 3rd).  Further direction will be forthcoming as announcements are made.” There has been no announcement about whether the other faculties and schools at Queen’s will do likewise when their classes resume on September 7th. It is also concerning that we have had Members report that some classes appear to have been scheduled in classrooms with seating capacity that is less than the class enrollment.

Until yesterday, there has also been no further information provided regarding the vaccination mandate since the university announced on August 12th “that it will require all students, staff, and faculty returning to campus to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Students, staff and faculty will need to be fully vaccinated or have a plan to do so, by Sept. 7.” The update provided by the university here: https://www.queensu.ca/safereturn/update-queens-mandatory-covid-19-vaccination-requirements can be generally summarized as being vague with the promise that details “will be announced in the coming days”. To date, we have been provided no details about how this will be implemented, what privacy safeguards will be in place, how enforcement will work, etc. We are only 11 days away from the September 7th deadline and we have no substantive information on this key issue. It is also noteworthy that in the most recent ‘update’ the September 7th deadline seems to have been quietly shifted to October 15th.

Queen’s has very clearly failed to demonstrate that it is in a position to reopen safely for in-person classes despite having had the entire summer to prepare, plan and communicate with QUFA members and the entire Queen’s community. The university’s poor communications replete with vague and misleading information, coupled with their inaction and apparent lack of preparedness, has led to a trust deficit in both the University and QUFA. QUFA continues to urge the university to communicate with our members in an open and transparent fashion, and to comply with their legislative requirement to seek input from the JHSC’s, so as to ensure a safe working environment for QUFA members – as well as for all other employees – and a safe learning environment for our students.

What is QUFA doing about this? As indicated in my previous updates QUFA has filed a grievance with the Ontario Labour Relations Board regarding the failure of the University to comply with their obligations under the OHSA, and an arbitration date is set for September 8th. In the interim, it is critical that all faculty members who are concerned about their safety report those concerns to their unit heads/Deans and then to their JHSC’s if the concerns are not resolved.

You have the right to refuse unsafe work, but the relevant legislation requires that you first raise the concern to your employer, so that they have the opportunity to address that concern. According to the Government of Ontario website (https://www.ontario.ca/document/guide-occupational-health-and-safety-act/part-v-right-refuse-or-stop-work-where-health-and-safety-danger) the steps to refuse unsafe work include: reporting the concern to your supervisor (either your unit head or Dean) as well as to your area Joint Health and Safety Committee. The employer then has an obligation to investigate “in the presence of the worker and the worker safety representative” [so the investigation must be open and transparent, unlike what we have experienced so far]. If the safety concern is not resolved to the satisfaction of the worker, then a Ministry of Labour Inspector is called in. Throughout the work refusal, the worker must remain at work but “stays in a safe place.” In this context, that would most reasonably mean that you would continue teaching your courses as assigned but do so via remote teaching methods until the workplace is demonstrably safe or the Ministry of Labour orders you back to work. Work refusals are a serious step and may only be undertaken if there is a genuine concern for your safety. Furthermore, working conditions that are unsafe for one member might not be unsafe for another member, the individual’s own circumstances may be an important factor.

Sincerely,

Jordan Morelli – President
Queen’s University Faculty Association