Renewing efforts to eliminate workplace ASBESTOS exposures
The International Labour Organization estimates that 100,000 workers die every year from cancer caused by asbestos.
Ruth Holden lives with the fear she will be among them. From suspicious lung scarring on her X-ray, Ruth Holden’s respiratory specialist asked if she’d ever worked with asbestos. First she was stunned, then angry.
Holden, a non-unionized worker at a large municipal government was exposed to asbestos during pool maintenance that sometimes involves cutting insulation to repair and replace pipes. She wasn’t informed the insulation contained asbestos. No precautions were taken to protect her or her co-workers.
Holden was on Parliament Hill in September to attend Canada’s first independent conference on asbestos. Among the sponsors and supporting organizations were the New Democratic Party, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Sierra Club of Canada, Mining Watch Canada and International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.
Speakers included internationally renowned physicians and researchers to asbestos victims and their families. As the conference closed delegates formed Ban Asbestos Canada, a non-profit, volunteer-run organization of asbestos victims and their families, scientists, academics, activists and concerned citizens dedicated to banning all types of asbestos world-wide with assurances of just transition measures for those affected.
Similar resolutions were passed at Ontario Federation of Labour conventions in the 1980s. CUPE was among the first calling for an asbestos ban in 1981. More recently the CAW and the Canadian Association of University Teachers did the same.
Despite longstanding legal safeguards worker and public health continues to be threatened by this deadly dust. Holden and others want to know why.
Miracle mineral or fatal fibre?
Asbestos is the generic name for a class of naturally occurring mineral fibres. Deemed a ‘miracle fibre’ for it’s resistance to fire and chemicals, it was widely used after World War II until the early 1970s.
Ontario banned the sprayed application of asbestos in 1973 but until then it was liberally applied as fireproofing on ceilings, beams and in ventilation systems; mixed with insulation and wrapped around boilers and pipes; used in vinyl flooring and ceiling tiles and automotive brake clutches and brake linings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates some 3,000 different commercial products contain asbestos fibres.
Herein lays the problem. Age, vibration and water have damaged many of these applications. When asbestos is disturbed or dries out it can crumble, break loose and become friable and potentially inhaled. Workers have been exposed this way during routine repairs and renovations or simply by working in the vicinity.
Many believe the incidence of asbestos-related disease has yet to peak, especially with latency periods often of 20 to 40 years. In Britain, widely divergent predictions on asbestos-related deaths in that country over the next 30 years range from 90,000 to a startling 500,000. The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive calls asbestos the greatest single cause of work related death in the UK and have introduced tough new duties to manage asbestos that take effect in May, 2004.
Recent studies released by Institut de la santé
publique du Qué
bec reveal a similar trend. Commissioned by the Quebec government in 1997 after the World Trade Organization upheld France’s ban against chrysotile or white asbestos, researchers analyzed data for the period 1982 to 1996 and found Quebec men had 10 times the risk of dying of mesothelioma than men in the rest of Canada. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer almost exclusively associated with asbestos exposure. Quebec women were twice as likely to contract mesothelioma than other Canadian women. Despite this, only 22 per cent of total mesothelioma cases in Quebec were reported to the Quebec’s Commission de la sante et de la securite au travail (CSST) suggesting a vast underreporting.
Asbestos is responsible for about one-third of work-related deaths a year reported to the CSST. Considering the public health impact, the Quebec Health Department now requires doctors who diagnose an asbestos related disease to report it to public health authorities within 48 hours.
Chrysotile asbestos, mined in Quebec’s eastern townships employing approximately 1,200 miners, is still used in some brake applications but most commonly as a reinforcing agent in cement products especially water pipes. About 95 per cent of Quebec’s asbestos is exported, primarily to Asia, Africa and Latin America, making Canada the second largest exporter of asbestos after Russia.
Few issues like asbestos have sparked such passionate health and safety debate. One immediately thinks of the 1970’s campaigns waged by asbestos workers at Johns Manville in Scarborough and Bendix in Windsor.
From these well publicized efforts and the resulting public outcry, Ontario declared asbestos a designated substance in 1982 (Regulation 837). This was followed by the 1984 report of the Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety arising from the use of Asbestos in Ontario.
In 1986 came a second designated substance regulation for asbestos on construction projects and in buildings and repair operations (Regulation 838). Along with requirements to identify, assess and label materials, the Regulation classifies work as Type 1, 2 or 3 operations; Type 3 posing the greatest risk and therefore requiring the greatest protection because it can involve major renovations and work of a long duration. Employers must report annually to the Ministry of Labour the hours each worker performs Type 2 and Type 3 work.
Repairing a crumbling legacy
The routine and often unseen work of building maintenance and renovation is commonly carried out by skilled trades’ workers which also puts them at increased risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials. Jay Peterson, business manager, Toronto-Central Ontario Building and Construction Trades Council, represents thousands of these workers. They are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers, insulators and many others. To them, Peterson issues this warning, “Workers have the right to know. No one should start a job unless the materials to be worked on are assessed for asbestos and proper precautions are taken.”
Peterson’s concerns are well founded. The Construction Safety Association of Ontario reviewed Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims and found of 217 fatal occupational disease claims allowed for the sector between 1991 and 2000, 53 per cent were for mesothelioma. The WSIB accepted 357 asbestos-related disease claims from construction sector workers from 1992 to 2001, including 179 fatal claims, for a claims cost of $71,575,955.
As a sheet metal apprentice, Peterson says he popped many ceiling tiles never questioning whether the work area contained asbestos. And despite the reported rates of asbestos-related diseases in the building trades he says, “This is the tip of the iceberg. Too often we focus on job safety but not on health. It’s time to start protecting our health before it’s too late.”
Repeated calls for action
In the early 1980s the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) undertook a campaign to protect their members and the public by trying to rid schools, hospitals and other public buildings of asbestos.
Despite these efforts asbestos is sparking the same old battles says Anthony Pizzino, CUPE national health and safety director. Pizzino reports CUPE members at Calgary’s Catholic School Board contacted the national for help when they were ordered to clean up ‘small amounts of asbestos’. The issue landed on the bargaining table where CUPE negotiated only certified contractors would perform asbestos abatement, protecting CUPE members from possible exposures. “It’s just not worth the risk,” says Pizzino.
But why is it still an issue? Pizzino says previous abatement efforts done cheaply and haphazardly meant asbestos was simply painted over, covered up or ‘encapsulated’. “This doesn’t reduce the threat to worker and public health. Wherever asbestos is found it should be removed — there is no safe level of exposure. Years ago we failed to sound the alarm bells loudly enough. It’s time to stop counting the dead. We have to act now if we want to protect the next generation of workers.”
Jane Hulme oversees health and safety for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. Hulme, recently contacted by a former English teacher diagnosed with asbestosis, says, “It’s really difficult to reconstruct his workplace exposures because teachers were only included in the Act in 1984 so we don’t always have access to joint committee minutes and inspection reports prior to that.”
Hulme recommends working closely with other unions and worker representatives in your workplace. Several years ago, she and other Sarnia education workers created a working group to address the asbestos identified in several area schools. It was discovered while running cables above ceiling tiles but she says smaller amounts have been detected while dry-buffing floor tiles.
Other Sarnia activists know too well the impact of asbestos. The Canadian Auto Workers, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and local building trades unions have filed workers’ compensation claims by the hundreds for workers exposed in foundries, insulation plants and in chemical factories, many of which contain kilometers of boilers, reactors and piping systems insulated with asbestos-containing materials.
More unsettling still is the growing number of bystander cases, family members diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases exposed while hugging a loved one at the end of a shift or from washing work clothes riddled with asbestos. Despite ongoing campaigns, these secondary victims are still not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
Ruth Holden says she drew strength from the Ottawa conference. “Until then, nobody seemed to give a damn.” More determined than ever she says, “Unlike my disease and the asbestos that caused it, I am not invisible and I’m not going away.” She hopes to go online with her own web site to help other asbestos victims.
Asbestos appears as whitish, fibrous material yet individual fibres are invisible to the naked eye, almost weightless they can remain suspended in air. Ontario’s occupational exposure level for asbestos is .1 fibre/cubic centimeter of air.
Most often inhaled, once asbestos enters the body it cannot be expelled or destroyed.
Health effects include shortness of breath, pleural plaques (scarring of the lining of the lung); asbestosis (irreversible scarring of lung tissue, can lead to reduced lung function and death); mesothelioma (cancer of the membranes lining the lungs and abdomen, almost always fatal).
Asbestos is also associated with increased rates of lung cancer and cancers of the esophagus, stomach, large intestine and rectum.