Workers and communities mobilize against occupational disease
Don Postar has seen 12 co-workers die before they reached retirement. High rates of disease led him to investigate among other things levels of electromagnetic fields within his workplace, the multi-site facilities of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. His hunch and subsequent follow-up has resulted in a board-wide policy on the safe use, location and testing of computers. Wanting to share his experience and learn more, Postar, a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 5555, took a personal vacation day to attend a recent one-day occupational disease symposium hosted by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
The Ontario Federation of Labour hoping to encourage activism like Postar’s held two, one-day sessions this spring to inform and inspire others to take new tools and a renewed sense of hope back to their workplaces and communities. More important, they hoped the symposium would solidify a growing movement committed to halting the devastation of occupational disease.
Among the 200 participants were health and safety activists, injured workers, environmentalists, researchers, writers and policy makers — a diverse group, but they reflect the collective skills needed to tackle the complexities of occupational disease, says OFL president Wayne Samuelson. “Workers have always had to rely upon themselves and their representatives to make gains in health and safety. But unless we build support and get occupational disease on the broader public policy agenda more people will die just from going to work.”
Conservative estimates report that occupational disease claims the lives of 6,000 to 8,000 Ontario workers each year. In Ontario alone occupational disease claims have risen from 584 in 1996 to 7,567 in 2001.
Vern Edwards, OFL director of health and safety, says the symposium’s lineup of high calibre guest speakers helped deliver an undeniable key message — occupation is a significant risk factor for disease and death.
Kicking off the symposium with an inspired presentation were Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, co-authors of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution
. Symposium participants received a copy of the book and had a chance to speak one-on-one with the authors at several book-signings.
The authors provide compelling and thoroughly documented insights into a corporate culture they contend views worker and public health as expendable commodities. They focus on efforts by the lead and plastics industries to control information that links certain diseases to their products. Still hopeful the authors laud the wisdom, courage and commitment of affected workers and communities to raise awareness despite considerable opposition.
Markowitz and Rosner were heartened by the supportive audience and encouraged them to play a role in preventing occupational and environmental disease. “Fighting for recognition of occupational disease is a battle less and less to do with science and more a case of the politics and power of communities,” noted Rosner. Markowitz cited the campaign to ban the widespread use of lead in paints and gasoline and the ban on use of polyvinyl chloride in children’s soft plastic toys. “These are clear examples of legal action and community awareness that have been successful in helping to secure a future generation,” he said.
Preventing occupational disease is made easier as links are made to their workplace and environmental causes. Cancer Care Ontario’s recent report, Cancer 20/20,
concludes cancer rates in Ontario will double in the next 25 years. Fortunately the report also commits the organization to refocus efforts in the area of primary prevention by further investigating the occupational and environmental origins of cancer. Currently, one per cent of CCO’s budget is spent on cancer prevention.
Terry Sullivan, vice president, Preventive Oncology, Cancer Care Ontario, updated conference participants about current initiatives like using data from the Ontario Cancer Registry (OCR) and analyzing it against reported occupational disease claims submitted to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. While the OCR contains no occupational history data, Sullivan hopes these steps will enable them to draw some preliminary conclusions about the burden of exposure, but he cautions, “Even with occupational histories we’re still lacking critical exposure information from the workplace.”
Victims of occupational disease and their advocates know better than most about the significance of linking work exposure to illness and disease. Through the tripartite Occupational Disease Advisory Panel established in 2001 by the WSIB, compensation advocates have attempted to articulate a new vision for justly compensating victims of occupational disease.
At present however ODAP’s future is in question. Dave Wilken, an ODAP member and a staff lawyer with the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, a Legal Aid-funded clinic servicing injured workers, reports employer representatives have repudiated an earlier consensus on a legal standard of proof based on the balance of probabilities.
Other important issues remain unaddressed including the assessment and role of scientific research and the role of exposure evidence and worker testimony in support of compensation claims. Mired in gridlock, labour representatives are calling for the return of an independent occupational disease panel to conduct research and make policy recommendations. The previous Occupational Disease Panel they contend worked well with the parties, reaching consensus on 20 of 21 studies conducted. To date the WSIB has implemented very few of these report recommendations.
While debate ensues in the policy arena, education continues to play an important mobilizing role. To encourage activity from coast to coast within workplaces and communities, the Canadian Labour Congress has drafted a practical manual to support their Prevent Cancer Campaign. Providing useful hands-on tips, the guide offers solutions for investigating carcinogens in the workplace and community, makes suggestions for building community coalitions and gives recommendations for working with the media.
In the end, most agree dramatic interventions are long overdue if we are to stem the tide of suffering that comes with simply earning a living. Dave Killham, Workers Centre executive director, spoke candidly to symposium participants, “I sometimes wonder how we will ever deal with issues like occupational disease and the transformation of our economy when we have yet to deal with more basic issues of workplace safety.” But Killham and others can see the potential to create jobs that cause no harm to workers or the environment. These hopes are captured in a new Workers Centre video production, Working Green
. Also used to support this year’s Earth Day in the schools project, the video documents the exciting potential for a greener, cleaner economy and labour’s successes in pursuing this alternative vision.
To order copies of Working Green
contact a Workers Centre regional office near you. Copies of Deceit and Denial
can be purchased through the OFL. Send your cheque for $30.00 (shipping included) to the Ontario Federation of Labour, 202-15 Gervais Drive, North York, ON M3C 1Y8, Attention: Paulette Hazel.