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Queens College Temperature Problems: Employee Health Gets Cold Shoulder

Cold winter weather has caused problems for students, staff and faculty at Queens College.
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All last summer and into the fall, and now in the dead of winter, the weather has stressed and strained facilities at Queens College (QC) – not to mention students, staff and faculty. Failures of campus cooling and heating systems have damaged musical instruments and specimen collections, disrupted scientific experiments and created conditions unhealthy for staff, disruptive to scholarship and detrimental to teaching and learning. Last summer’s extreme heat waves and record-breaking cold snaps this winter are likely to become the new normal, thanks to climate change. Since the Queens College administration has failed to effectively respond, the campus PSC chapter had to amplify its efforts to move the college to act more responsibly and humanely to address these issues.

Underfunding and Neglect

We already know that many buildings on campus are poorly designed, whether out of incompetence, false economies or irresponsible college oversight. We already know that maintenance at the college has been neglected, principally by underfunding and understaffing. We already know that climate change is bringing more extreme weather. The college administration cannot do much about climate change, but smart and effective responses cannot be out of reach.

One of the consequences of climate change is that hot weather arrives earlier and earlier. The summer’s first heat wave arrived during the “shoulder” season, before central cooling systems are expected to operate. When the college tested systems in several buildings, the chillers failed to work. This left most of the Music Building and all of the Benjamin Rosenthal Library to swelter. In the Music Building, the high humidity, which accompanied the heat, warped instruments – an organ worth over a half-million dollars could not be tuned. In the Rosenthal Library, temperatures in the Second Floor Commons – open 24 hours a day for students to study during final exams – varied between 86 and 90 degrees.

According to the college administration, University regulations and City ordinances prohibit the operation of central cooling systems before the official cooling season. The PSC chapter regards the college as legally and morally obligated to maintain a safe and healthy work environment at all times, regardless of policies implemented decades ago.

Moreover, some problems have been unnecessarily compounded by management failures. For example, one of the two chillers for Delany Hall was damaged during Hurricane Sandy, but the college did not begin repairs until after the 2013 cooling season had already started.

During the summer’s second heat wave in late June, two more QC buildings (Powdermaker and Klapper Halls) were left without cooling. Then one of Razran Hall’s chillers failed, ending some science experiments. All summer long the Science Building suffered sporadic electrical outages, leaks and inside temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Even when broken chillers went back online, ventilation systems often failed to get cool air into many offices and classrooms.

Recommendations

Cooling problems continued into Fall semester. The Kiely Hall chiller failed in August and repairs were not completed for a month, into the second week of the Fall semester. The industrial fans brought into classrooms made so much noise that students could not hear teachers, and, worse, teachers could not hear students.

Once the weather turned bitterly cold, new problems quickly emerged. Razran Hall’s heating system failed in January, again threatening scientific research. Three weeks later, with heat still not getting to all offices, the condensate pumps stopped working. Meanwhile, the annual deep freeze in Powdermaker Hall has brought out herds of space heaters, which are neither safe nor adequate to compensate for the decision not to distribute heating to many interior rooms.

For years, the union asked the college to review its response to extreme temperature conditions:

  • We identified difficulties with the work request tracking system. The college implemented an Archibus facilities management system, but it does not accurately track work orders, much less provide ready and transparent access to the status of requests and repairs, or monitor building conditions.
  • We asked the college to improve communication to staff and faculty about infrastructure problems and failures, as well as hazards to safety and health. The vice president for finance and administration maintained the college could not agree because it lacked email addresses for building residents. Of course the claim was counterfactual, and the college began last summer to send email notices to departments for some asbestos abatement projects and some major ventilation system failures (though distribution has sometimes been incomplete, and the reports not always accurate).
  • We urged the college to revisit decades-old policies that define extreme heat conditions, especially whether a building is considered air-conditioned, and whether heat waves require changes in work hours or locations. We presented suggestions to the provost and the chief superintendent in 2011, who forwarded them to the vice president.
  • We recommended that when extreme weather is predicted, the college should monitor buildings with failed or failing ventilation systems so that staff could be relocated and operations reduced in an orderly fashion while the college kept its contractual and moral commitment to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

Late last April, the union wrote the acting provost about its concern that the college still had no procedure for responding to extreme heat conditions in classrooms. In May, we asked to meet with the president to discuss the problems in the Music Building and Rosenthal. At the end of June, after the cooling system failures during the first summer heat wave, the acting provost finally replied that these matters would be handled by the new vice president for finance and administration, due to start the middle of July, and the president agreed to meet with the union on July 22.

Persistence

At that meeting, chairs from various departments described – in person and in writing – the effects of extreme heat and high humidity on conditions of teaching and learning, instruments and equipment, laboratory experiments and staff morale. The union presented a proposal based on the one first submitted in 2011. The vice president agreed the college might try to monitor building conditions more thoroughly.

Following up on that meeting, the union asked the college to begin immediately conducting a campus-wide survey of humidity issues and to develop policies and procedures for responding to extreme heat conditions in classrooms, labs and offices. The union stressed especially the urgency of providing clear directions for instructors who arrive to find their assigned classroom or lab unfit for use. Three days later, the Queens College general counsel wrote that,“We are reviewing the concerns and proposals, and will get back to you.”

When the Kiely Hall chiller failure turned into a crisis at the beginning of the Fall semester, the union asked again to discuss the situation with the president, but got no response. When the union raised the issue at the September college Personnel & Budget meeting, the president suggested we submit a proposal. The union sent him another copy of the proposal submitted in July.

At the October labor-management meeting – the last of that president’s tenure – the vice president sketched an ambitious plan to centralize cooling on campus and promised that next summer, teachers could call a number to get their classes moved out of sweltering rooms.
However, we need a more comprehensive approach. PSC members have made a number of helpful suggestions.

First, the college is not yet able to track heating, cooling and ventilation problems, much less address them. The PSC can help. It has started to compile an inventory of problem areas and will ask the administration how it assesses and plans to remedy these conditions, building by building or even room by room. Members can keep an eye out and check on areas known to be vulnerable when extreme weather is forecast.

Accountability

Second, the president and his administrative team have, for many years, answered only to the university chancellery and not to the faculty, staff and students of Queens College. They have failed to maintain an environment conducive to learning and teaching. They have failed to provide a safe and healthy workplace. They have failed to deploy scarce public resources wisely and responsibly. The PSC can make sure these failures are more widely advertised to the citizens of New York and to the politicians who represent their interests.

We can make it harder for the administration to continue to fail to be responsive and accountable to the thousands of people who work and study at QC.

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This is an updated version of an article published in the last issue of the QC Catalyst, the newsletter of the Queens College PSC chapter. If you have temperature problems on your campus, contact the PSC Health & Safety Watchdogs at hswatchdogs@pscmail.org.