Common Hazards Found in Public Schools

This educational bulletin contains information on the common hazards found in schools. Topics covered include:

Roof Renovation, Painting and Construction Work
Indoor Air Quality
Woodworking Shops
Science Laboratories
Darkrooms - Photodeveloping
Art Rooms - Kilns
Art Rooms - Sculpturing
Art Rooms - Silk Screen Printing
For Further Information

Roof Renovation, Painting and Construction Work

The Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) Program has received numerous complaints from building occupants who have stated that they experienced health symptoms from renovation activities. Health effects associated with vapors and dusts generated by these activities include eye irritation, upper respiratory irritation, nausea and dizziness, lightheadedness, headache and irritability.

Roof Renovation: Several different types of roofing applications are available. While older methods include applying coal-tar pitch and asphalt, newer roofing technologies use rubber or other synthetic membranes as roofing materials. Each type of roofing application should be evaluated for the potential for releasing chemical contaminants.

Studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have documented health problems can occur from exposure to coal-tar pitch products during roofing operations. Roof removal operations may release coal-tar pitch dust that contains polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's).

Rubber or synthetic membrane applications use organic solvents in adhesives, primers, sealants and hardening agents. During the application of poly-urethane roofing, methylene-bisphenyl-isocyanate and organic solvent vapors may be released which can cause adverse health symptoms.

Painting: Painting may introduce many chemicals into the indoor environment. In addition to paints, other products such as strippers, primers, and thinners may also be used. The solvents and additives found in paints, strippers, primers, and thinners may cause indoor air quality problems, due to the evaporation and aerosolization of the solvents and additives found during and after application.

Paints are usually described by the solvent systems utilized in their formulations. The two common types of paints are:

  • alkyd - hydrocarbon solvent based and usually a higher volatile organic compound (VOC) content;

  • latex - water based and usually a lower VOC content.

The amount of VOCs present in paints and released into the indoor environment may contribute to indoor air quality problems during painting operations. Paint manufacturers have formulated paints that have lower VOCs, but these paints tend to be thicker and more difficult to apply. Some companies are producing paints from "natural" products. These paints are not considered to be hazard free, but they are developed from substances which are less harmful.

Construction and Demolition Work: Construction and demolition work usually creates nuisance dust. The greatest amount of dust may be generated during sweeping. If good housekeeping practices are not used, this may lead to excessive dust in the work area, which may cause adverse health effects for building occupants.

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

The PEOSH Indoor Air Quality Standard contains requirements for building renovation. The regulation requires renovation or new construction that results in the diffusion of dust, stone and other small particles, toxic gases or other harmful substances in quantities hazardous to health be safeguarded by local ventilation or other protective devices to ensure the safety of employees.

Renovation areas in occupied buildings must be isolated and dust and debris must be confined to the renovation or construction area. Examples of isolation measures may include:

  • seal off the work area;

  • shutting down ventilation system and sealing the supply and return grilles;

  • maintaining the work area under negative pressure in relation to adjacent areas;

  • good housekeeping practices in the work area.

Before using paints, adhesives, sealants, solvents, or installing insulation, particle board, plywood, floor coverings, carpet backing, textiles, or other materials, the employer must check product labels or obtain in formation from the manufacturers of those products on whether or not they contain volatile organic compounds such as solvents, formaldehyde, or isocyanates that could be emitted during regular use. This information must be used to select products and to determine necessary measures to be taken.

The employer must notify employees at least 24 hours in advance, or promptly in emergency situations, of work to be performed on the building that may introduce air contaminants into the work area.

Although not part of the regulation, the following actions may be necessary:

  • employees should be relocated if they are sensitized to products or materials being used in renovation or construction;

  • employees should be informed of the location and how to obtain material safety data sheets (MSDS) and New Jersey Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets (HSFS) for products being used during construction and renovation. The MSDS can be obtained from the contractor or the manufacturer of the product. The HSFS can be obtained by contacting the New Jersey Department of Health, Right to Know Program, at (609) 984-2202;

In addition, if the above control measures are not adequate, then work may need to be performed when the building is not occupied.

Top ^
Indoor Air Quality

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 30 percent of all buildings have an indoor air quality (IAQ) problem. Much research and attention has been focused on a whole host of indoor air contaminants and stressors in office buildings as well as in the home. Asbestos, formaldehyde, radon, bacteria, fungi, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulates, nitrogen oxides, ozone, fiberglass, tobacco smoke, temperature, humidity and poor ventilation top the list. Any of the aforementioned may be a cause of IAQ problems.

Employee symptoms associated with IAQ problems may include eye, nose, throat, and upper respiratory irritation, skin irritation or rashes, chills, fever, cough, chest tightness, congestion, sneezing, runny nose, muscle aches, and pneumonia. Illnesses associated with IAQ problems include asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, multiple chemical sensitivity, and Legionnaires' Disease.

How can IAQ problems be corrected and/or prevented?

  • Ensure an adequate outside air supply. The ventilation system should be operating at original design specifications.

  • Eliminate or control known and potential sources of air contamination, both chemical and microbial.

What can be done if the air quality is unacceptable?

  • Conduct employee interviews to obtain pertinent information regarding what symptoms are being experienced, how many employees are affected, when they are affected, where they work, what they do, etc.

  • Review building operations and maintenance procedures to determine when and what type of chemicals are being used during cleaning, floor waxing and stripping, painting, gluing, pesticide spraying, roofing operations, renovation and construction activities, etc. Also determine when deliveries, which may generate vehicle exhaust, occur, or if furniture, drapery, and office equipment has been recently installed.

  • Conduct a walk-through inspection to evaluate possible sources that may contribute to IAQ complaints.

  • Inspect the HVAC system, window air conditioners, office dehumidifiers, etc., in order to determine if the systems are working properly and are in good condition.

  • Review the building blueprints of the duct work and ventilation system to determine if the system is adequately designed.

  • Conduct air sampling, if necessary, to determine if specific contaminants are present or if adequate fresh air is being supplied.

For more information on this subject, obtain the PEOSH informational bulletin on Indoor Air Quality.

For more information on the PEOSH Indoor Air Quality standard (N.J.A.C. 12:100-13) obtain the PEOSH information bulletin PEOSH Indoor Air Quality Standard or the standard at Indoor Air Quality [pdf 55k].

Top ^

The PEOSH has received numerous complaints from building occupants who have stated that they have experienced health symptoms related to the installation or maintenance of carpeting. Carpeting and the adhesives used to glue it down may contain many chemicals, some of which may cause adverse health effects. These chemicals can be found in carpet fiber bonding materials, backing glues, solvents, anti-static and anti-stain treatments, fire retardants, pesticides and fungicides. Most commercial carpeting comes with a styrene-butadiene latex rubber backing. It is used wall-to-wall and glued rather than tacked down so that it doesn't move when heavy office furniture and file cabinets are moved.

Carpeting may be shipped from the factory in plastic-covered rolls. When it is unrolled for installation, certain chemicals (called volatile and semi-volatile chemicals) may be released into the air. The chemicals may continue to off-gas from days to months. Potential adverse health effects depend on what type of carpeting is installed, how much adhesive is used, and how much fresh air is being circulated in the building by the ventilation system. Health complaints have also been associated with cleaning products used to shampoo carpets, mold growth on carpets, and allergic reactions to mites and their dander in carpeting.

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

  • Limit the use of carpeting in the workplace.

  • Never use carpeting where persistent moisture may be present.

  • Before carpeting is installed, make certain that it is properly aired out.

  • When removing old carpeting, first vacuum it thoroughly.

  • Relocate workers during installation.

  • Isolate and ventilate the work area.

  • Keep the carpet clean and dry.

  • Use the least volatile adhesive.
Top ^

What can be done to control the use of carcinogens?

  • Carefully review the use of any carcinogens in the school. The list of known and suspected human carcinogens can be obtained from the PEOSH.

  • Substitute less hazardous substances (except for benzene in gasoline or fuel for which there is no substitute).

  • Review the Material Safety Data Sheets for information on the hazards of the new products.
Top ^
Woodworking Shops

Traditional woodworking shops use woodworking machinery such as band saws, circular saws, planers, belt sanders, lathes and routers which are noisy and can emit dust into the air.

A wide range of adhesives are used for bonding wood. The most commonly used adhesives are synthetic and may contain formaldehyde; some also contain organic solvents. Any of these synthetic adhesives may re-lease chemicals into the air. Health effects associated with low level exposure to solvents include dizziness, headaches, nausea, drowsiness, loss of balance and vomiting. Some vapors used in adhesives are flammable in air and precautions should be taken to eliminate sources of ignition in the work area.

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

  • Woodworking machines with high-speed cutting tools such as saws, planers and routers should have exhaust ventilation equipment to collect sawdust and wood shavings at the source.

  • When working with adhesives that contain organic solvents, work in a well ventilated area.

  • Various products are used to finish wood-working projects; some of these finishes contain organic solvents which have the potential for creating health problems if over-exposure occurs. By substituting a water-based product, potential airborne organic vapors can be reduced.

  • Wear latex-nitrile or neoprene gloves when working with organic based solvents.

  • Wear rubber or synthetic type gloves when working with water based solvents.

  • Evaluate noise exposures.

For more information on this subject refer to "Safe Schools: A Health and Safety Check," Checklists on Woodworking Machinery, pages 293-304 and Noise Generating Operations, pages 327-332.

Top ^
Science Laboratories

The PEOSH has adopted the Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard. The PEOSH Laboratory Standard is de-signed to protect public employees from intermittent exposure to a broad range of chemicals encountered in laboratories. The standard addresses the specific concerns which make laboratory activities different from industrial activities in the use and handling of hazardous chemicals. The standard covers all laboratories engaged in the use of "hazardous chemicals" in accordance with the definition of "laboratory use" and "laboratory scale" as provided in the standard.

Laboratory Scale: This means that chemicals are used in such a way that the containers used for reactions, transfers, and other handling of substances are designed to be easily and safely handled by one person. Laboratory scale excludes workplaces whose function is to produce commercial quantities of materials.

Laboratory Use of Hazardous Chemical: This means the handling or use of hazardous chemicals in which all of the following conditions are met:

  1. Multiple chemical procedures or chemicals are used;

  2. The procedures involved are not part of a production process, nor in any way simulate a production process;

  3. Chemical manipulations are carried out on a "laboratory scale."

  4. Protective laboratory practices and equipment, such as laboratory hoods, are available and in common use to minimize the potential for employee exposure to hazardous chemicals.

The standard does not cover laboratories where the use of a chemical provides no potential for employee exposure (e.g., the use of "Dip and Read" tests involving reagent strips or the use of commercially pre-pared kits, such as pregnancy tests).

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP): Develop and write a CHP that contains:

  • Standard operating procedures;

  • Exposure control measures including engineering controls, personal protective equipment, and personal hygiene practices;

  • Requirements for properly functioning fume hoods and other protective equipment;

  • Provisions for medical consultation and medical examinations;

  • Designation of a chemical hygiene officer;

  • Establishment of a chemical hygiene committee;

  • Establishment of a hazard identification system;

  • Establishment of a respiratory protection program;

  • Establishment of a recordkeeping procedure.

For more information on this subject, obtain the PEOSH information bulletin PEOSH Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard and the Model Written Chemical Hygiene Plan (Download: in WordPerfect 6.1 for Windows format or LABSTAND [pdf 31k - an Adobe PDF file].

Top ^
Darkrooms - Photodeveloping

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

  • Supply adequate ventilation in darkrooms to control acetic acid vapors and other vapors and gases produced.

  • Exhaust darkroom air to the outside and do not recirculate this air to any other areas of the building.

  • Supply an adequate amount of make-up air. This make-up air should be 90% of the air that is exhausted, in order to maintain negative pressure in the darkroom.

  • One major supplier of developer chemicals recommends supplying 10-20 air changes per hour for workrooms and using local exhaust ventilation for processing and mixing tanks.

  • Use slot exhaust hoods for mixing tanks.

  • Only trained staff should mix photoprocessing powders and concentrated solutions.

  • Powders should be mixed under a local exhaust system.

  • Use local exhaust ventilation for color processing.

  • Wear protective equipment such as goggles, aprons, and gloves during black/white and color processing.

  • Provide an emergency eyewash station in or near the darkroom.

For more information on this subject, obtain the PEOSH information bulletin on Emergency Eye Washes and Showers.

Top ^
Art Rooms - Kilns

Kiln emissions are a result of the heating of clay and glaze chemicals. Kiln emissions can include: sulfur dioxide, lead, cadmium, carbon monoxide, chlorine, fluorine, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

Some possible health effects include lung irritation from the sulfur oxides which can form sulfurous and sulfuric acid mist or droplets, and lung irritation from chlorine gases, nitrogen oxides, and ozone.

What can be done to reduce potential health hazards?

  • Equip kilns with a local exhaust system such as a canopy hood.

  • Design the local exhaust system with duct work and a fan which directly captures kiln emissions at the source and removes them to the outside.

  • Provide a capture velocity of 100 feet per minute.

  • Provide side curtains on the hood to increase the efficiency of the canopy hood by decreasing the effects of cross-drafts.

  • The hood should cover the contaminant source without interfering with the work process.

  • Provide headroom between the source of contamination and the hood to allow one to open the kiln door after it has cooled down.

  • Provide adequate make-up air to replace the exhausted air.

  • Do not use dilution ventilation to remove kiln emissions from art rooms.

  • Do not use lead-containing glazes.
Top ^
Art Rooms - Sculpturing

There is evidence to suggest that overexposure to possible components of clay dust such as silica, asbestos, and talc can cause silicosis (from silica and talc), cancer (from asbestos), and other respiratory abnormalities. Dry powder clays that must be mixed at school should not be used. Only wet prepared clay should be purchased in order to keep airborne dust to a minimum.

Exposure to clay dust can be reduced by implementing a routine housekeeping program. The pro-gram should include damp mopping the floor at the end of the day where clay products are handled and damp wiping all work surfaces after each class period.

Top ^
Art Rooms - Silk Screen Printing

Solvent-based silk screening should only be conducted using an explosion-proof local exhaust system at all stages of the process. The local exhaust system for solvent-based silk screening is very costly and still may not ensure that students will not be exposed to highly toxic substances. The best solution is to switch to water-based inks which reduce the hazardous solvent exposure. The inks and cleaning materials in the water-based process contain little or no solvents. By substituting a water-based product, there is a significant reduction of airborne organic vapors, and solvent skin absorption can be eliminated. In addition, the risk of fire is greatly reduced. Adequate dilution ventilation must be provided.

Top ^
For Further Information

The Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOSHI) in cooperation with the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Adult and Occupational Education, has developed a training manual "Safe Schools: A Health and Safety Check." This manual contains checklists covering environmental, health and safety regulations for secondary occupational and career orientation programs. To obtain a copy of this manual write or call:

Resource Center of EOSHI
681 Frelinghuysen Road
PO Box 1179
Piscataway, NJ 08855-1179
(908) 932-0110

If you have any questions or need further guidance in order to implement any of these recommendations, please contact the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Program at (609) 984-1863 or write to the:

New Jersey Department of Health
PO Box 360
Trenton, NJ 08625-0360

This bulletin was prepared in part with materials provided by the Center for Occupational Hazards in New York City.

Top ^
Last Reviewed: 6/5/2017