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Building safety a priority for schools

By Nick Longworth

Many things can be discovered from a day in the gymnasium at your local high school: a jump shot, how to serve volleyball, or even how to throw a football.

But that the floor you walk on has contained mercury for the last three decades typically isn’t one of them.

Health hazardous materials can go unnoticed for extended amounts of time, often years and even decades in older school buildings.

But how are health-hazardous materials monitored and subsequently dealt with? When violations do arise, how are they resolved and by whom?

MacNeil Environmental Group (MEG), a Thief River Falls company, are the independent outsourced safety officers used by Park Rapids Area Schools. The group has a long tenured history of over 27 years in Minnesota and Wisconsin’s health inspection industry.

“We’ve worked with MacNeil Environmental Group for well over a decade now and they have been very consistent,” said Lance Bagstad, Superintendent of Park Rapids Area Schools.

In Park Rapids, onsite Facility Director Jason Splett oversees the day-to-day management and implementation of all safety programs. His duties include assessing and designating any potential threats, preventative measures and necessary upgrades.

“I am responsible for all the custodians, all the maintenance of the buildings and overall the health and safety programs. I work closely with MEG who comes through about once a month,” said Jason Splett, Facility Director for Park Rapids Area Schools.

Outside of MEG’s presence, Splett says other third party inspectors are also involved with routine inspections.

“We also bring in the Northwest Service Coop to do an annual mock Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) test. We do two OSHAs a year; one through McNeil and one through Northwest,” Splett said.

“When we do these (OSHAs) we walk through every classroom, every storage room. Every room that is here gets looked in and gone through,” Splett said.

“The Fire Marshall, Health Inspector and the Department of Health also do periodic visits,” Bagstad said.

“The Fire Marshall was here this past year and everything went very well with that. The Health Inspector has also looked at the kitchen and pools already this school year,” he added.

Documentation provided by Park Rapids Area Schools Business Manager Carol Hutchinson showed monthly tests done by MacNeil Environmental Group, include: Asbestos inspections, food service safety training, indoor air quality testing, hazard waste disposal, playground safety inspections and air emissions reporting.

When contacted directly, these claims were confirmed by the MacNeil group.

“If a specific issue ever arose, we would hire MEG as a consultant to help put together a plan to figure out what our best option would be going forward and it’d be an immediate correction,” Splett said. “We would uncover anything that looks suspicious and get it tested immediately. If it does come back as a hazardous material, we would begin to implement a procedure to remove it.”

Other in-house safety precautions are done on a weekly basis throughout the course of the year.

“We also do routine testing on fire extinguishers, AEDs and eyewash stations in which teachers are required to sign weekly cards saying they tested the equipment for at least three straight minutes. This is done every Wednesday,” Bagstad said. “(The teachers) even receive a weekly email reminder them to do so. If anything was malfunctioning - like last week there was a paper clip stuck in one - it would be corrected immediately.”

Even with rigorous testing in place, Park Rapids Area Schools are still not 100 percent free of hazardous materials. The high school gym still contains traceable levels of asbestos.

“Nearly every old building these days has asbestos in it somewhere. (The asbestos) is contained and not causing a problem, because we’ve tested it. But we’re not going to spend the money to get rid of it when it’s extremely expensive to remove. The hot water pipes that used to be insulated with asbestos were removed when the boiler was upgraded,” Bagstad said.

“Major asbestos inspections are done every three years. We’ve already done a huge amount of asbestos removal,” Hutchinson said.

In recent years, other programs geared toward energy efficiency and equal opportunities have also been added.

“In 2010 we received an energy upgrade including all new lighting upgrades, air handlers, a lot of windows were replaced and we re-roofed a large portion of the high school building, giving it better insulation,” Splett said.

“Moving forward we have meetings setup with vendors about software that will allow us to see what’s happening in our building and any problems with equipment before it breaks down. If a furnace or something isn’t working properly, we want to replace it before losing lots of energy,” Splett said.

“We also recently went through an extensive civil rights compliance audit with the facilities to make sure we were fully compliant with disabled access regulation,” Bagstad said.

Overall, health concerns are not something that Bagstad and Splett will be taking lightly.

“We’re learning and going through the necessary steps to see how we can do things better going forward,” Splett said.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
(218) 732-3364