(Canadian OH&S News) — Following an April 21 fire that forced the shutdown of an Ottawa building where about 1,800 Department of National Defence (DND) workers were employed, word has come out that around 500 of the workers will soon be moving to a facility containing asbestos — but neither the employer nor the workers’ union is raising alarm at this point.
The National Printing Bureau building, located at 45 boulevard Sacré-Coeur in Gatineau, Que., was reportedly last inspected by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) in November. The DND has said that the building poses no current health and safety risk associated with the notoriously carcinogenic mineral.
“While asbestos is present at the 45 boul. Sacré-Coeur location, it is contained and encapsulated and does not pose a threat to employees,” DND communications advisor Dominique Tessier stated in an e-mailed response to COHSN. “The planning for temporary alternate workplaces at other buildings throughout the [National Capital Region] aims at ensuring the health and safety of our members.”
Tessier added that the DND was not aware of any concerns from employees about the presence of asbestos. “We always encourage our members to raise any issues with their immediate supervisors so that they may be appropriately addressed.”
The fire, which occurred at the Louis St. Laurent building, made the top two floors “uninhabitable,” according to June Winger, executive vice president of the Union of National Defence Employees, which represents DND staff.
“So the Department has been trying to put our members, their employees, in different workplaces to be able to allow them to continue doing their work,” said Winger. “Some employees are just working in alternate buildings where there happens to be some vacancies; other employees are working from home and such.”
Although Winger was aware of the asbestos at the National Printing Bureau building, she said she was “fairly comfortable and confident” with the safety guarantees from PSPC and the DND.
“I don’t think that they would ever try to outright mislead or lie to us about that sort of situation,” she said. “I don’t know how sophisticated they are in the detection and remediation of asbestos. So that’s more where our concern lies.”
Winger added that asbestos in older work facilities was an ongoing concern for the union. “If it appears that they are in any sort of imminent danger,” she said about the employees, “then we’ll address that with the appropriate steps, as we do in every situation when our members feel that their health is being compromised.
“We expect the employer to address it in a safe, practical way,” Winger added, referring to safety risk, “and when it’s not being done, then we will push forward to ensure that it is being done appropriately.”
The federal government came under fire earlier this year, after reports revealed that federally funded construction projects were still using materials containing asbestos and that Canada was still importing asbestos-containing products (COHSN, Feb. 9). PSPC banned the use of asbestos in new federal construction projects on April 1 and stated that the government was planning to develop a database of federally owned buildings and establish disclosure requirements regarding asbestos for newly leased buildings this year.
Tessier pointed out that the National Printing Bureau building is already home to several government department offices, including offices of the DND.
“The safety and security of our employees is always our top priority,” she said.
Winger noted that the move was only temporary and that the DND was planning to move the majority of its employees to the Carling Campus, a government building complex in Ottawa’s west end, within the next few years.
“So it’s all a bit of a temporary situation where everybody’s just trying to help out together to get the job done,” said Winger.