Managing Your Environmental, Safety, and Health Issues

What if there was a single tool to help your school district evaluate and manage all of its environmental, safety, and health issues, as opposed to having numerous files scattered across multiple offices and buildings? There is. It’s a software program called the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool (HealthySEAT), and it’s available free of charge from the Environmental Protection Agency —

HealthySEAT is a fully customizable and easy-to-use way for district-level staff to conduct voluntary self-assessments of all schools, and to track and manage information on environmental conditions for each school. Because it’s voluntary, there are no reporting requirements.

Almost 400 assessment actions covering a variety of issues are contained in a master checklist. The checklist is intended as a menu from which administrators choose the actions they want in their customized program — a district can track any facility issues it chooses, and there is no obligation to use the specific assessment actions that are included.

According to the EPA, “The checklist is organized by the physical areas of the school to be assessed, the issue-specific topics and sub-topics for each area of the school, and specific assessment standards that represent the positive conditions that an assessor would look for in each area.” The primary environmental topics include:
•    chemical management;
•    energy efficiency;
•    hazardous materials;
•    hazardous waste;
•    indoor air quality;
•    moisture/mold control;
•    non-hazardous waste;
•    outdoor air pollution;
•    pest control/Integrated Pest Management (IPM);
•    ultra-violet radiation;
•    water (drinking-, waste-, storm-, and -efficiency);
•    portable/relocatable classrooms; and
•    construction and renovation.

HealthySEAT also includes health, safety, and injury prevention elements from these five organizations;
1.    National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): comprehensive Safety Checklist Program for Schools, which contains recommendations and checklists on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that may be applicable to schools;
2.    Centers for Disease Control, Division of Adolescent and School Health: recommendations based on the CDC/DASH School Health Index;
3.    Department of Education Safe and Drug Free Schools Program: Crisis Planning and Management;
4.    Department of Transportation: Pedestrian Safety recommendations; and
5.    Consumer Product Safety Commission: recommendations on playground and other products.

Software Components
HealthySEAT has three main components.
1.    Customize for District: This allows a district to customize the software, including adding its own name and district logo, facilities, assessors, and contacts for remediation, as well as tailoring content to district policies, programs, and priorities. “The district can also tailor the prioritization scheme included with the tool, customize letters, and manage security features, among other administrative functions,” says the EPA.
2.    School-Specific Assessment Information: This allows a district to enter and store information about every assessment conducted at individual schools, track the status of every recommendation, and generate customized letters and reports to individual schools pre-and post-visits, the EPA says.
3.    Reports/Output Menu: Here, points out the EPA, users can select from a variety of report options that organize and extract information from the database such as assessment findings by school or recommendations by topic/subtopic.

In the Beginning: HealthySEAT Gets Started
When the EPA asked schools to beta test HealthySEAT, Salt Lake City School District volunteered. “We were selected in December 2004,” recalls Gregg Smith, P.E., director of Facility Services. Version 1 software was installed in early 2005.

After using the software for awhile, the district met with the EPA and other beta teams to provide feedback. “At that point,” says Smith, “we expressed our dissatisfaction with the software in its then state and presented what we needed. Basically, the EPA needed to modify the software so schools could better use it. That started development of Version 2, which was recently released.”

The district is now in the position of deploying Version 2 so that it’ll serve its needs. And Smith notices an improvement: “The biggest difference is that Version 2 allows multiple individuals with different areas of responsibility to manage their own compliance efforts,” he says. In the original version, one single department ended up managing compliance for an entire district, which didn’t fit Salt Lake City’s management model.

“We have one individual who deals with playground safety,” explains Smith. “He can conduct his inspections independent of anything else anyone else is doing and enter the data. Similarly, my department deals with OSHA compliance, and we can manage that ourselves. The ability to independently manage your records while using the same database became key to us.”

Now Smith’s challenge is to convince everyone in the 36-school district to use the tool to track their environmental, safety, and health issues. “It’s a matter of assigning some new responsibilities, conducting some training and making others aware of the tool,” he notes.

Smith also anticipates customizing HealthySEAT to the district’s needs. For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is just touched upon as a recommendation in the software. He intends to make it a monthly inspection process and track it. Similarly, the district’s backflow prevention devices have to be tested annually (the district conducts the testing), and he plans to track that. Transportation is a third customization example. The district recently added a bus idling policy, and it will be tracked for compliance.

“We believe the value of HealthySEAT is that it’s a single source for all compliance issues within a district,” says Smith. “Now that we have that flexibility, one of the issues I face is on what server do we install it so everyone has access to it?” A simple-enough challenge to overcome.

Today: States Customize HealthySEAT
Some states, including Ohio and California, have customized or are now customizing HealthySEAT to reflect state requirements and recommendations. It reduces the duplication of each district independently researching applicable requirements. More, EPA content remains intact so that states can download future updates of the software and not lose customized information.

Through a grant from EPA Region 1, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) has customized HealthySEAT with information specific to New Hampshire. It’s designed to be used as a starting point for its school districts to further customize the program for their own use. “The project is a partnership of DES, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the New Hampshire Department of Education, health departments in both Manchester and Nashua, and the New Hampshire Partnership for High Performance Schools,” according to the EPA.

Since the beginning of 2006, the state has trained 21 of its 175 districts to use HealthySEAT. “We don’t have a law that says you have to use it,” says Richard G. Rumba, MPH, Environmental Health Program Administrator for New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services in Concord. “It’s a tool that we encourage them to use to comply with best practices recommended to keep things safe and healthy in schools and to keep abreast of state and federal regulations.”

What Rumba has found is that the facility managers believe it’s a useful tool, but they’re so busy running between the schools and attending meetings that they’re not fully engaged with it just yet. In fact, of the 21 districts that have been trained, he has only identified seven that are using it. “If they don’t have an opportunity to use it for two weeks,” he explains, “they forget how it works. Now we’re trying to give refreshers to those who were trained but forgot how to use it.”

Rumba has also learned that facility managers are much more likely to pay attention if his office goes to a district and conducts a one-on-one session, helping download the software and input the information. “They’re all busy,” he notes. “To justify spending half a day going to another town for a seminar is not easy for them. I tell them I can train them in one and one half hours in their office so they don’t have to travel, and that scenario works.”

In 2007, New Hampshire updated the links and regulations in the software, and they’ll do it again this year. “We have to think about it from the facility manager’s perspective,” says Rumba. “He assumes everything in the program is up to date and accurate, so we have to keep it that way.”

In the Future: If You Use HealthySEAT
If your district moves forward with a HealthySEAT program, there are two things to remember. The first, is that individual schools still need to implement programs at the school level, as HealthySEAT does not replace effective daily management of environmental, health, and safety issues. Rather, notes the EPA, HealthySEAT is “intended to help districts assess the overall status of facility conditions in their schools at a macro level, making sure that the critical elements of a program are present in each school.”

The second thing to remember, is that the assessment standards included in HealthySEAT are not a complete list of all of the requirements and recommendations that apply to schools. To be clear, the standards represent a subset of the major elements of EPA regulations applicable to schools. To build a comprehensive list of requirements and recommendations, districts should consult with their state and local agencies and building codes.