After a boiler explosion at a Northwest Philadelphia elementary school this week left a maintenance worker in critical condition with third-degree burns, the city will inspect and repair all boilers in district schools beginning Tuesday.
The district also intends to implement new employee safety measures, new training programs and a long-term action plan based on condition assessments due in March, according to the service workers union 32BJ/SEIU.
The action follows a Friday morning protest by union members.
On Wednesday, when a veteran maintenance worker attempted to ignite the backup boiler at Edmonds Elementary, it exploded — causing the building to shake and engulfing the man in flames.
A district building engineer rushed to the boiler room, put the fire out and dragged the man to safety.
“If he hadn’t been there … I don’t want to discuss anything other than that,” said Erik Fleming, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers building representative for Edmonds.
All students and staff were evacuated without harm.
The service union, Local 1201, 32BJ/SEIU, said the incident speaks to larger issues of unsafe conditions in schools due to deteriorating infrastructure.
“We’re here today because we’re demanding that they tell us what is going to change. Once people are being lit on fire at work in the school district, something has to change,” said Gabe Morgan, the union’s vice president, at a news conference Friday outside district headquarters.
Union members pledged not to leaving the premises until the district addressed their concerns.
“We have a member who’s struggling right now for his life. And this just can’t be pushed aside to business as usual,” said Ernie Bennett, the director of Local 1201.
Union members lamented that staffing levels were at all-time lows, and that buildings haven’t improved despite members agreeing to a concessionary contract that directs savings into district coffers.
District officials stressed that the cause of the explosion was still unknown. An independent engineer will conduct a forensic study, and the Philadelphia Fire Department will also investigate.
All district boilers are inspected every two years by the Hartford Insurance Company. The one in question, which was nearing the end of its 30-year lifecycle, was reviewed last year.
The district has spent $83 million in the past 10 years on new boilers. The district spends $135 million annually on maintenance and repairs.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said, systemically, the district’s aging infrastructure needs an estimated $4 billion in top-to-bottom repairs — an astronomical figure in an era of staffing cuts and austerity budgeting.
Still, Gallard said, building conditions do not place students and employees at risk.
“We believe our buildings are safe. We will do whatever needs to be done, to make sure they continue to be safe for staff, for students, for all employees,” he said.
After the news conference Friday, union leaders met with high-level district officials who have agreed to reinspect all of its boilers and get union input on an overall plan to improve facilities citywide.
Later in the day, they met with Mayor Jim Kenney who announced the safety inspections and maintenance efforts that will begin next week.