Reading the local obituaries would be more insightful than Randy Harding realized. As a treasurer of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 677, Harding monitors Kitchener area newspapers for death notices of Local 677 members and sends a bible to the surviving family.
It didn’t take long for Harding to realize many former members were dying of cancer and other diseases after working for years in area rubber and tire factories. Working in the industry himself for 25 years and as Local 677’s fulltime health and safety chairperson, Harding with solid support from his local executive contacted the USWA national office and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers for additional resources to investigate.
Volunteering at an occupational disease intake clinic at USWA Local 6200 in Port Colborne served as a crash course for Harding who was instrumental in setting up a similar clinic in Kitchener. In February 2002, more than 400 claims were filed with the Local. Harding has also made more than 20 home visits to collect information from members too ill to leave their homes.
For Harding however these are all baby steps. The Local is slowly beginning to process more than 500 workers’ compensation claims keeping Local activists Paul Shrum, Mike Dinsmore and Blaine Cameron busy fulltime.
Work to date has focused on many claims for noise-induced hearing loss but Harding acknowledges the real challenge that lies ahead is in linking the clusters of bladder and esophageal cancers to working in the rubber industry. With most of the large rubber factories now closed, Harding has started to piece together exposure data on these sites relying upon minutes of joint health and safety committee meetings and inspection reports.
This summer he attended the USWA Rubber and Plastics Industry Council in New Orleans sharing his recent experience with American workers. Closer to home at USWA’s District 6 health and safety committee and at a Workers Health and Safety Centre instructor update meeting, Harding has displayed the body maps from their intake clinic to educate others about this useful technique. Says Harding, “Why reinvent the wheel when we have strategies in place to help identify occupational disease.”
Today there is one Goodrich Uniroyal plant left in Kitchener. Harding reports that orders issued there for better air makeup units have not only helped address heat stress but have reduced worker exposures to chemicals and improved overall air quality. With hundreds of claims filed Harding hopes it’ll encourage other area workplaces to implement prevention measures.
Kitchener rubber workers have a long, rich history but one now marred by the sad legacy of occupational disease. It’s a lesson Harding wants other to heed. “There are still a lot of small plants in this area where workers are unknowingly being exposed to hazardous chemicals every day. We have a lot of work to do yet before all workers in our community are safe.”
Nancy Hutchison is USWA National Office health and safety representative. “I noted early on that Randy had very strong health and safety instincts. He’s a quick study and when he takes on an issue he commits to it until he has a resolve one way or another. His expertise is relied upon well beyond his own Local.”
The Waterloo Regional Labour Council would appear to agree. Last fall at an event they held in conjunction with the WHSC, they presented Harding with a recognition plague for his outstanding contributions to health and safety.