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Economic reasons do not lessen a municipality's responsibility

Vihti should have been quicker to find solutions to a school's interior air problems

Economic reasons do not obviate the public authorities' obligation to protect labour and promote the health of the population, is the view that Deputy-Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja adopted in a decision concerning the Municipality of Vihti.

Problems of damp and mould in the Nummelanharju School in Vihti were known about and were being studied for years. Nevertheless, the Municipality postponed a basic renovation of the school for economic reasons.

Deputy-Ombudsman Pajuoja points out that factors associated with the state of the Municipality's finances do not lessen the responsibility that an organiser of education bears to ensure the safety of the environment in which pupils study. 

A complaint about the matter was made to the Ombudsman by a private person, who was of the opinion that the Municipality had knowingly endangered the health of the pupils and staff when it postponed a renovation of the school. In the complainant's assessment, the efforts made to resolve the problem had been inadequate and flawed. Nor had the symptoms displayed by pupils and staff been monitored systematically. 

Inadequate, but not unlawful

Monitoring of the interior air problem in the school had begun in conjunction with an appraisal of the state of the property in 2005.  The Municipality had been studying the problem and trying to deal with it by a variety of means for years. Some of the problems had been rectified in the beginning of 2009, but the repairs proved inadequate. Both the staff and the pupils continued to display symptoms.

Deputy-Ombudsman Pajuoja did not find that in the actions of the Municipality there had been any instances of negligence on the basis of which it could have been deemed to have acted unlawfully, but he regards the measures taken as inadequate.

When the mould problem in the school had been identified, the Municipality should in his opinion have acted more determinedly to ensure that the staff and students were no longer exposed to health-damaging impurities in the interior air. When the basic renovation of the school was postponed and completion of repairs had to be waited for, the Municipality should have been quicker to find workable solutions to the problems, for example by transferring teaching to alternative premises.

The first phase of the basic renovation project in the school was completed in December 2010, when half of the classes were transferred to a new building. At the moment, most teaching takes place in the new building and the rest in alternative premises. 

Extensive study of health hazards in buildings nearing completion

Last November, the Parliament's Audit Committee commissioned a study of damp and mould problems in buildings from an outside body.
 
The study focuses on Finland's entire building stock, and it is the first of its kind ever undertaken in this country. It is being conducted by an interdisciplinary group of experts from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health under the leadership of Professor Kari Reijula.

The study is now in its final stages and its results will be published in October, after which the Audit Committee will hear the views of experts. In a later stage, the Committee will draft a report on the matter for deliberation in a plenary session of the Eduskunta.

Further measures

Deputy-Ombudsman Pajuoja asked the Vihti Municipal Board to provide him, by 31.3.2013, with a report on what measures the municipality has taken to resolve the interior air problems in the school and ensure that suitable teaching premises are available from the school year 2012-13 onwards.

Additional info will be provided by Legal Adviser Piatta Skottman-Kivelä, tel. +358(0)9 432 3347.