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Union, government meet to discuss asbestos concerns

(Canadian OH&S News)


(Canadian OH&S News)

Representatives of the United Steelworkers union (USW) met with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) on Sept. 9 to discuss workers’ compensation for former miners who had been exposed to asbestos while working in the town of Baie Verte.

“We raised some concerns and issues, and everybody we talked to said they take it quite seriously,” said Andy King, the USW’s former director of health, safety and the environment, who led the discussions. “There’ll be some follow-up conversation.”

An asbestos mine operated in Baie Verte from 1955 to 1992. Of 145 former workers who have filed claims with the commission for asbestos-related diseases to date, only 45 — less than one-third — had their claims approved, King said.

The USW used the meeting to brief the WHSCC on what it said was the extent of the problem in Baie Verte and on the diversity of diseases — especially cancers — to which asbestos was linked.

“The key thing here is that people are looking for an acknowledgement, not just in words but in some concrete action,” King added. “They were wronged. The Baie Verte miners were exposed to horrendous amounts of asbestos, an incredibly virulent, toxic substance that we now prohibit everywhere. And there have been great difficulties in the past in addressing these issues. It’s been a long time.”

A source from the WHSCC acknowledged that the meeting with the USW representatives had taken place, but declined to comment further.

The conference between the union and the WHSCC followed a series of four public meetings in the Baie Verte area over the weekend of Sept. 7-8. Hosted by the Baie Verte Miners Registry, which runs a voluntary, 1,003 person strong electronic database of information on locals who worked at the mine, these meetings allowed former asbestos miners to ask questions while receiving advice on compensation claims. King and other USW reps also attended these public meetings.

Dr. Stephen Bornstein, one of the registry’s creators, charged that Baie Verte’s massive asbestos exposure was allowed to continue for decades due to the asbestos industry’s “excellent job of concealing, obscuring and generally suppressing information about how dangerous asbestos was.

“So you have a product that your employer is saying is safe, that the Canadian government is supporting and exporting, and you have a job that’s one of the few decent-paying jobs in an isolated region,” Dr. Bornstein added. “And you’re talking about a complicated, long-term risk of disease. That’s a message that’s hard to convey.”

King said that the province’s compensation requirements are a big part of the reason why so few of the miners’ claims had been approved. “In Newfoundland, like a number of other provinces, the basic requirement for compensation for asbestos-related disease is measured in years of exposure,” he said. “You need to have 10 or 20 years of exposure,” King said, adding that sometimes “consistent exposure” is mentioned, but it’s always measured in terms of years.

In other words, these requirements don’t account for workers who had been exposed to larger quantities of asbestos over shorter time periods. “We have workers who were exposed to 700 fibres in a year,” King said, citing a safe or “permissible” maximum amount of only four fibres per year. “So that combination has led us to go back to the commission and say: ‘You’ve got to look at these numbers again, and you’ve got to look at them differently.’”

Dr. Bornstein pointed out that the low rate of claim approval was not atypical in Canada, as far as occupational disease was concerned. “It’s hard to get a claim accepted for occupational disease,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘I fell down, I broke my arm, there were witnesses, I was at work when I did it.’ It’s hard not to get that claim accepted. For occupational diseases, it’s much harder even with the best will in the world. So it’s not outrageous that the success rate is one in three, but it’s disappointing.”

Asbestos, a silicate mineral, was commonly used in construction during the late 19th and 20th centuries; manufacturers sought it for its sound absorption and resistance to damage. Its fibres have since been linked to various diseases, including lung, stomach and colon cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue. King cited stomach and colon cancer as additional possible risks.

“It’s a huge historic problem,” said King.