(Canadian OH&S News)
Nearly a year after the death of an advocate from cancer caused by asbestos exposure, the Saskatchewan government has officially enacted a law named after him — a law making it mandatory for public buildings containing the notorious mineral to report it.
The Public Health Amendment Act, also known as Howard’s Law, went into effect on Nov. 7. The law makes Saskatchewan the first Canadian province to enact legislation requiring a public registry of buildings known to contain asbestos. Crown corporations, schools, health facilities and provincial government organizations must now report any asbestos content in their facilities to the Saskatchewan Asbestos Registry.
“At the present time, it’s mandatory for public buildings,” explained Don Morgan, Saskatchewan’s minister of labour relations and workplace safety. “That will include buildings owned by public sector entities, and it will be optional for building owners beyond that point. So if you are a large commercial landlord and you wish to list your buildings, you could, but we require it for hospitals, schools and that type of thing.”
The provincial government passed the act in the legislature after its third reading on April 18, five months after Saskatchewan launched a voluntary registry and an online information guide about buildings with asbestos.
Morgan anticipates that the new law will benefit the public in two ways: providing specific information about asbestos content in the province’s buildings, and raising public awareness of the general existence of the material.
“It exists in a lot of buildings that were constructed before 1980,” he said. “In most of them, it’s encased and it’s not a factor. The problem arises when somebody will go in to change plumbing pipes or do electrical work and then will inadvertently disturb the asbestos, and it becomes airborne. The risk occurs if it’s accidentally disturbed or moved into the air,” Morgan said.
Howard’s Law is, in part, the legacy of the late Howard Willems, an asbestos awareness activist who worked for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency while co-chairing local oh&s committees (COHSN, Nov. 19, 2012). In 2010, Willems was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer linked to asbestos. He passed away on Nov. 8, 2012.
“We’ve accomplished everything that Howard set out to do,” said Jesse Todd, a health and safety officer in Saskatchewan and the chairman of the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (SADAO). “We’ve carried on in his name, in his honour, so it’s very gratifying to see this become law.”
Willems co-founded SADAO with fellow activist Bob Sass in 2010, out of the former Saskatchewan Ban Asbestos Committee.
Todd suggests that the other provinces — and the federal government, which has jurisdiction over a lot of buildings and facilities under the Canada Labour Code — need to consider adopting similar asbestos registries. “I believe that a registry would benefit those workers as well,” he said.
“There are some good regulations out there that do refer to how to deal with asbestos once it’s been identified. But the problem is, people do not have the tools available to them to identify where asbestos is prior to beginning a renovation of a building.”
Morgan said that the act had been named after Willems because of his strong advocacy of a mandatory asbestos registry during his final days. “It’s part of a larger oh&s piece,” Morgan said about the law, “but that portion of it we refer to as Howard’s Law, just to respect his contribution.”
While Willems would have been pleased to see his namesake become a reality in provincial law if he’d been alive today, Todd pointed out, the late activist would not have stopped there.
“He would look out and know there’s a lot more work to do, and he’d keep pushing ahead,” Todd said. “His goal was definitely to have an all-out countrywide registry, and his main goal was to protect all workers that were working with asbestos and all workers that could be at risk.
“He was a really strong believer in the right to know,” Todd said. “His motto through the whole process was: ‘Never quit.’”