Until the deep fryers, grills and woks start humming, Ryerson’s main kitchens, in the basement and first floor of Jorgenson Hall, are cramped but livable.
The coughing fits don’t begin until the cooking does. The rooms fill with steam and smoke, rich in food particulates, that needs to be vented from the building.
But the smoke doesn’t evaporate quickly.
It hovers in the air through much of the kitchen’s busiest period, from 11:00 a.m. until after 1:00 p.m. If the workers are racked by coughing fits, they step outside. Once their lungs clear, they march back into the thick, smoky air. Sometimes, they leave the doors that swing into the kitchens propped open, hoping for some relief.
Cafeteria staff, who have been forbidden to speak with the media, say they have been complaining of bad air in the kitchens for three years and their concerns have not been addressed.
“If you’re hearing that the air quality is bad and people are having problems breathing, that’s a complaint that needs to be raised with Toronto Public Health and we need to investigate it,” says Reg Ayre, a health hazard manager with Toronto Public Health.
Ordinarily, Ayre says, air quality assessments should be done once every few months, or as soon as the possibility of bad air is raised.
So, how bad is the air in Ryerson’s Hub kitchens?
“We don’t know,” says Lynn Kaak from the Ryerson joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee. “There has been no air quality assessment done in those kitchens since [before] the renovations [in September 2003].”
With negotiations between Ryerson’s administration and it’s cafeteria staff due to begin at the end of the month, the staff, their union local and Kaak’s committee have some serious questions regarding the safety of the cafeteria’s kitchens and Ryerson’s ancillary services department’s relationship with its staff. Questions Kaak and others say ancillary services director John Corallo is refusing to answer. Kaak’s committee is responsible for ensuring that departments across Ryerson are following proper health and safety guidelines and performing inspections regularly.
Some departments, like the Rogers Communications Centre and the Recreation and Athletics Centre “are very responsible and are always on top of things.” Others, she says, “couldn’t give a rat’s ass. [Ancillary services] is one of those.”
An exasperated Kaak ticks off a list of concerns on her fingers:
- The downstairs kitchen doesn’t have a phone, which could pose a serious risk if there is an emergency in the kitchen that requires help from Ryerson security or even a call to 911.
- There is a recurring problem with mould in one or more of the basement kitchen’s fridges, which began over the Christmas break and continues to reappear.
- The kitchen, as well as the newly-renovated cafeteria, did not face a routine workplace health and safety inspection until last Thursday. “Ideally,” Kaak says, “those would be performed every month or two… A kitchen is absolutely a high-risk area.”
(Results of the inspection were not made available to The Eyeopener)
- Workers who were concerned about the quality of the air were ignored, Kaak says, to the point where one worker was threatening to lodge a complaint with Toronto Public Health. Kaak says he declined to make the call for fear of losing his job.
Corallo admits that an air quality assessment has not been performed and that a health and safety inspection was only completed last Thursday (he now plans to have the ventilation system inspected later this week), but he denies that his department has been lax about safety issues and places the onus on the cafeteria staff, who he says have never come forward with their concerns.
“They have staff meetings where they can discuss these kind of issues [with Aramark managers],” he says. “They would then raise the concern with me… I meet with them [Aramark managers] on a weekly basis and that concern has never been raised.”
The threat of the unemployment line, Kaak says, is the tape the university slaps on the mouths of its workers. Several cafeteria staff who spoke without giving their names, say their concerns are ignored and they have been told to keep quiet about it.
“The workers are absolutely terrified of speaking up,” Kaak says. “It’s an ongoing complaint from [them].”
The workers agree, and are unwilling to comment publicly on their struggles.
“We were specifically told not to talk to The Eyeopener,” an unnamed cafeteria worker says. “I’ve been raising the air quality issues for three years, but no one up there listens.”
The air quality issue revolves around how well Ryerson’s ventilation system removes particulates – minute quantities of solid and liquid matter that enter the air during the heating or meats, fish and cooking oils. Studies carried out by a Health and Safety group on commercial kitchens in the United Kingdom found that particulates can contain cancer-causing agents, but when they occur in a well-ventilated kitchen, the risk to workers is minimal to nonexistent.
The breathing problems occur when the kitchen’s ventilation system is not equipped to handle the buildup of smoke, containing particulates, that can happen during times of continuous use.
A quick look at the kitchens during peak time reveals a handful of workers cramped into a small, smoky space. The smoke lingers in the room, crowded near the ceiling, and exits via the propped-open doors as quickly as through the ventilation system. One ventilation hood, above the Manchu Wok cooking space, doubles as a grease trap. Or it would, workers say, if it wasn’t clogged up and dripping grease back down onto the steel countertops.
But the air quality issue is only the tip of the iceberg.
Contract negotiations begin at the end of the month, and safety concerns aside, union leaders have also raised a laundry list of other problems with Ryerson’s food services department that must be addressed before a new contract is signed.
The issues range from a need for a pay raise and full-time hours for food services workers who have seen their incomes drop under reduced scheduling, a lack of accountability from ancillary services director John Corallo’s office and the relationship, or lack of one, between cafeteria staff and their managers.
According to Stephanie Blake, president of OPSEU Local 596 – which represents the food services staff – the problems all stem from the same roots: A contract that was signed by Ryerson with Versafood Services, Ltd., (now Aramark) more than 10 years ago. That contract took the day-to-day management of Ryerson’s food services from the hands of the university administration and placed it under the control of a for-profit corporation.
Since then, Blake says, it has been a downhill slide.
“The minute the university decided not to take responsibility for food services and contracted out that department to Aramark, things began to change for the worse,” she says.
According to Blake, some workers have seen their hours cut, other have lost benefits and some have lost their status as full-time employees.
“And they [Aramark] have a right to do that,” Blake says. “But the way they’re doing it, without any sensitivity, they’re not listening.”
Aramark, for their part, declined to comment, pointing out that the cafeteria workers are still under contract to Ryerson and Aramark is merely responsible for the day-to-day management of the cafeteria.
Corallo’s response to complaints about loss of hours and full-time status for the workers is that the cafeteria just underwent a renovation and that Aramark is “tinkering with the scheduling.”
He defends Aramark’s relationship with Ryerson by pointing to the improved service reports from cafeteria customers and a better bottom line for the university.
“We have gotten improved customer satisfaction reports,” he said. “As well, from the financial side, food services is a break-even operation… It was losing money [when we signed the contract]. Their mandate is simply to create a break-even operation. That’s what they’re doing.”
Blake’s complaint is that the bottom line is balanced on the backs of the cafeteria staff.
“They’re taking the lowest level of worker and nickle and diming them and putting them at risk in the name of financial prudence,” she says. It’s a university, for goodness sakes, it’s not a corporation.”
While Blake says the issues will be brought up during negotiations, Kaak believes it is time to take a more direct approach.
“The union has meetings every friggin’ month,” Kaak says. “And they’re trying, but when you’re talking to a wall, there’s not much you can do.”