Patience and persistence. Brent Borland has them in spades. The former base safety officer and current volunteer training officer with the marine search and rescue unit of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Borland doesn’t stop until he’s found a solution.
Borland is the fulltime health and safety chairperson with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), Local 6200 at Inco’s Port Colborne nickel refinery. The plant, in operation since 1918 and once one of the world’s largest nickel refineries, is now a hydrometallurgy plant that processes and packages nickel and specialty metals such as cobalt, gold and silver.
While recent media reports focused attention on contaminated soils in the neighbourhoods surrounding the refinery, Borland and others were long at work assessing the toll of occupational disease among its former and current workforce.
In 1996, then co-chair of one of the plant’s operational joint health and safety committees, Borland and other local activists began gathering information like blueprints and health studies, but the most telling were obituaries of former employees that appeared all too often in the local newspaper. “The flags really went up when so many former workers were dying,” he says. “We thought there might be a workplace connection.” Borland was also shocked to find film footage from 1947 showing sinter workers without protective equipment, he says, “working in dust so thick you couldn’t even see your partner.”
With their research in hand, and working with the USWA and the Hamilton offices of the Workers Health and Safety Centre and Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Borland and local leadership approached Inco to jointly conduct a comprehensive occupational disease intake clinic. Together, the USWA and Inco developed the intake questionnaire and all press releases. The two-day clinic held this past January was largely staffed by Steelworker activists from Borland’s local and others.
About 420 attended primarily former Inco workers and their families. Says Borland, “The clinic was one of the best ways we could have educated workers and their families about their right to compensation when they suffer a work-related illness.” Borland was especially touched by some of the widows who were unaware they were eligible for survivors benefits and who have since received settlements.
What Borland considers his real ‘pet project’ though is his work for the last seven years to establish a comprehensive health, safety and environment charter for the company. Borland says the company dabbled with various health and safety systems but it was Port Colborne’s homegrown program that has met with the greatest success. The program’s 21 elements include comprehensive auditing and thorough documentation procedures. Through continuous improvements the Port Colborne site has enjoyed years without a lost time injury. With its proven success, Borland is proud to say the program has been benchmarked throughout Inco. While he’s happy with the results he says it requires constant hammering away at the issues. It doesn’t happen overnight. “Each area in the plant once operated on its own but now they’re all part of the same program. They’re like islands that grew into one.”
Nancy Hutchison, health and safety coordinator, USWA National Office, says of Borland’s contributions, “Brent has the skills and the drive to make things happen. He works consistently until he gets results. He doesn’t stop until he’s sure he’s done everything he can to make his workplace and community as safe and healthy as possible.”