In fighting to protect his community from the potentially damaging impact of a waste plant incinerator, Jim Mahon gained some very useful skills he would eventually use to identify and eliminate toxic substances in his own workplace.
Mahon says his activism began in the early 1980s as part of the London, Ontario group Citizens Coalition to Maintain the Environment. In lobbying for a thorough environmental assessment of the proposed incinerator, Mahon honed his skills in researching chemicals and says, “The more I looked, the more I became alarmed. Then you make the link to the workplace and consider some of the likely worker exposures and you know you have your work cut out for you.”
At a time when there were no environmental representatives in the workplace Mahon was naturally drawn to health and safety issues. “I’ve always felt that health and safety and environmental issues were so closely related you really couldn’t separate the two.”
Beginning work at the Ford St. Thomas assembly plant in 1969, Mahon, a member of Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Local 1520 would eventually become an alternate health and safety representative, the union’s plant environmental representative, a Workers Health and Safety Centre-qualified instructor and the CAW London area Earth Day coordinator.
As part of the CAW Prevent Cancer campaign Mahon combined his health, safety and environmental skills to track and research all chemicals in the plant and identify all carcinogens. All of this work helped support the efforts of the plant’s Hazardous Material Review Committee that investigates safe substitutes.
Through his involvement with Great Lakes United, an international coalition dedicated to preserving and restoring the Great Lakes-St.Lawrence River ecosystem, Mahon was shocked to learn that mercury switches, used in some automobile lighting and anti-lock braking systems, are a major source of toxic mercury emissions released into the environment during scrap metal recovery. Mahon adds though optimistically, “Luckily there is a tailor made solution. The substitute, a ball bearing coated with copper, is readily available.” Mahon is now lobbying for these and other improvements as Canadian Treasurer and Canadian Labour Caucus Chairperson of Great Lakes United and as Labour Caucus Chair of the Ontario Environmental Network.
Through the Workers Centre/CAW Earth Day in the schools project, Mahon says he has had a fantastic opportunity to further share labour’s unique perspective, one students don’t normally hear. “The kids are surprised that Labour cares about the environment too.”
For a lifetime of activism within his workplace and his community, Mahon was the 2001 recipient of the CAW Bud Jimmerfield Health and Safety Award, named after the Windsor area health and safety activist who died from work-related cancer in 1998. Says Cathy Walker, CAW national health and safety director, “I think Jim Mahon is a real model of what a health and safety activist should be because he always has understood that health and safety and environmental activism are the same thing. Jim always showed leadership in ensuring that environmental concerns were seen as important health, safety and union concerns.”
Still an active instructor despite his recent retirement, Mahon says he loves opportunities to reach people regardless of their age, experience or background because wherever you go there’s always a link to health, safety and the environment. “You never know,” he says, “when you’re going to click with someone and maybe make a difference down the road.