MARYSTOWN, Nfld (Canadian OH&S News)
A review of shipyard work and cancer risks commissioned by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador (WHSCC) has confirmed that the main source of excess risk for workers is asbestos exposure, with the highest level of exposures dating back to the mid-1970s.
The document, “A Review of Cancer Among Shipyard Workers,” was completed by the Montreal-based Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail, a renowned scientific research organization, and made available on the WHSCC’s website on March 14. The review found that excess cancer risk among shipyard workers from asbestos exposure results in elevated rates of mesothelioma and cancer of the lung and larynx for all shipyard workers.
“The risk tends to increase with duration of employment and in many cases the risk is higher amongst those who were working in shipyards before 1980 when industrial hygiene practices were less stringent,” the review says, noting that cancer risks are evaluated based on exposures that occurred between 1930 and 1990, with a latency period of five to 40 years between first exposure and cancer diagnosis.
Risks may not reflect current working conditions
“The exposures, and thus the risks that we evaluate, may reflect circumstances no longer relevant to the current generation of shipyard workers, where stricter procedures are in place to minimize harmful exposures,” the researchers write, adding that a refined quantitative evaluation of risks was not possible due to lack of data on actual exposures, employment history and potentially confounding factors such as smoking habits.
In particular, the review found lagers, pipefitters and labourers were especially affected by lung and pleural cancer risks as a result of asbestos exposure, while painters, woodworkers, sandblasters and welders also had job-specific risks, “but the data available provide a very limited base for any quantification of risk.”
For example, for all shipyard workers, the risk of lung cancer from asbestos was “very high” pre-1975, while laryngeal cancer and mesothelioma risks for shipyard workers were very high pre-1970s. For welders, there was no specific data but, it is likely that there was an excess risk of skin cancer and uveal/ocular melanoma.
Chris Flanagan, director of communications at the WHSCC, says that the compensation board is still reviewing the document, but will continue to adjudicate claims on a case-by-case basis. To date, 59 claims have been filed from workers at the province’s largest shipyard in Marystown, 22 have been approved, and there are still “a very small number” in adjudication.
For Wayne Butler, national representative of Local 20 of the Canadian Auto Workers/Marine Workers Federation in Marystown, there is disappointment that there was little reference to gastrointestinal cancer in the report, which he contends is the primary cancer of concern for union members, although he could not provide specific numbers.
“In 1972, when I started working at the shipyard, we treated asbestos like it was something good to eat,” Butler says. “We didn’t even wear a paper mask. There were never any exposure levels kept.”
While the report “certainly illustrates the fact that shipyard workers are at a higher risk of certain types of cancer than the general public… [it] really sheds no more light on the facts than all the studies done in the past,” he says, adding that he has brought the issue of cancer among shipyard workers at Marystown to the attention of the provincial government since 1998.
“We still feel that our workers who worked at the yard deserve to be compensated for their illnesses and there’s no question in our minds that the working conditions at the yard was a contributing factor to those illnesses and we’ll continue to fight that on a day-to-day basis,” Butler says.