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BURNABY—Delegates at CUPE’s Western Library Workers Conference got down to business on Friday with a panel discussion, plenary workshop and breakout sessions on workplace occupational health and safety issues and some of the challenges facing library workers as they serve their communities.

In the morning panel discussion on OH&S issues, delegates heard from University of British Columbia Environmental Health professor Judy Village, BC Federation of Labour OH&S director Sheila Moir, and CUPE National Health & Safety representative Vanessa Wolff.

Village’s presentation on ergonomics focused on some of the dos and don’ts typical of the library environment, with tips on how to set up workplaces to avoid injuries.

Library workers face ergonomic strains in every department. From lifting heavy boxes filled with books, to focusing on computer screens for several hours at a time, she said, library workers need to remember to maintain the best posture and reserve time for breaks.

Get up and move your neck, stand up to answer the phone, shake your body and—most important—give yourself a rest,” she said, noting that the conference kit includes a 184-page Health and Safety Guide for Libraries, prepared by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, including an extensive section on ergonomics. The conference binder includes a check list on optimal posture for library workers.

Sheila Moir’s presentation on work-related stress distinguished between healthy versus toxic stress.

We know that two out of three Canadians deal with stress on a daily basis,” said Moir. “What we need to keep in mind is, how do we deal with it effectively? There’s legislation to protect us from hazards, and stress is a hazard. But instead of employers dealing with it, too often workers have to rely on the health care system.”

Work-related stress for librarians takes many forms, ranging from heavy workloads and high-demand jobs to dealing with an unpredictable public. In recent years, noted Moir, libraries have seen an increase in the number of transient street people with mental health problems using the library space, and the potential for library workers experiencing violence in the workplace is much higher than before.

Vanessa Wolff’s talk on workload issues echoed many of Moir’s concerns.

Even though there are more demands now on library workers than ever before, employers are underfunded in the public service,” said Wolff. “Let’s talk about what that means. If you’re dealing with a transient population that has mental health issues, and where violence is prevalent, and when you’re dealing with issues of workload at the same time, that only adds to the stress. And what does that do to your life at home? You can’t be there for your family because you’re dealing with all this stress of workload.”

Wolff questioned the compassion of library CEOs, boards, and councils who don’t listen to the concerns of frontline library workers. She said the solution is to work collectively.

Do workload surveys in your workplaces,” she said. “Get involved with your health and safety committee. Take a CUPE National workshop on workload, get fact sheets, and educate your membership so that collectively you can fight. Don’t deal with the problem alone.”

After the panel discussion, delegates formed into groups for breakout sessions on workload and stress, violence and working alone, wellness, and ergonomics.

The afternoon plenary session, “Libraries and the Community”, featured an engaging speech by CUPE 2669 president (Saskatoon Public Library) Gary Day.

In a sense, the session title is a misnomer, said Day, “because library workers are the community and the community is library workers.” In doing community outreach, library workers reach members of the public they might not otherwise meet: the hospitalized, seniors in long-term care facilities, and other people who can’t get out to their public library.

In terms of literacy promotion, there’s a lot more library workers can do, said Day.

We’re at the forefront of the literacy movement, yet we don’t receive the funding to do it,” he said. “Governments are cutting back on funding to libraries, yet we’re expected to do more with less.”

Thankfully, CUPE and other unions can step up to the plate to assist a library initiative.

Day described a program in Saskatoon in which the former NDP government had committed $8 million to fund a large complex in the poorest section of town that would include doctor’s offices, a grocery store, and social services as well as a library.

The right-wing Saskatchewan Party cut the funding after assuming government, he said, but CUPE National has stepped in to contribute $100,000, and another union contributed as well, so the project has come back to life.

Contact:  Dan Gawthrop, CUPE Communications, 604-291-1940 (258)