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B.C. ferry union calls for increased removal of vessels with asbestos

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January 3, 2017
By Jeff Cottrill

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(Canadian OH&S News) — As ferries dating as far back as the 1960s continue to run in British Columbia, the union representing the province’s marine employees is working to persuade B.C. Ferries to speed up the total abatement of older vessels containing asbestos.

Graeme Johnston, president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union (BCFMWU), appeared at a Canadian Labour Congress news conference in Nanaimo on Dec. 7 and gave a speech asking the federal government for a full asbestos ban. He highlighted the risk that the carcinogenic mineral poses to marine workers, including those on ferries.

“Many vessels operated by B.C. Ferries still contain significant amounts of asbestos,” Johnston told COHSN. “While full abatement on a working fleet is incredibly difficult because asbestos is literally interwoven into the fabric of many of the vessels, abatement to greatest extent possible in high-risk areas is not only reasonable, but appropriate, given the deadly effects of asbestos exposure.”

The BCFMWU plans to submit a proposal for more comprehensive abatement of asbestos in these work environments, he added, including quicker retirement of hazardous ferries from the provincial fleet.

“We will continue to work with B.C. Ferries towards an asbestos-free workplace,” said Johnston. “Our main goal is to ensure our members will not be exposed to any asbestos spills while at work.”


David Fagen, the executive director of safety and health with B.C. Ferries, said that the organization was already working hard to retire and replace older vessels, while training employees to avoid contamination.

“In the past five years, we’ve done over $4.5 million worth of abatement,” said Fagen. “Part of our new vessel strategy includes vessels that currently have asbestos in them being removed from service.”

In addition, B.C. Ferries has a committee devoted to addressing asbestos issues. “We have revamped training, and we’re working with the union to try and figure out what areas they have highest concerns about, and when we have opportunities to work on that, we do.”

Fagen explained that it is not feasible to keep older ferries in service by removing the asbestos from them, since the mineral is encapsulated securely within the vessels. Removing the asbestos could create unnecessary hazards for the workers involved, so it is more practical and realistic to replace older ferries over time, he said.

“Since 2007, we’ve brought eight new vessels into service,” said Deborah Marshall, B.C. Ferries’ executive director of public affairs and corporate development. “Next year, we’ll have three brand-new vessels.” One of the new ferries is expected to be delivered during the first week of January, while the other two should be in service by the summer, she added.

In his Nanaimo speech, Johnston pointed out that avoiding asbestos while working on a ferry or ship is sometimes impossible.

“Moreover, when work with asbestos-containing material is necessary and limited abatement is done, the risks associated with that abatement recur each additional time such work is needed. Consequently, the risks associated with doing limited abatements only grow,” he said on Dec. 7.

“This raises a very salient question: Why do we not simply do wholesale abatement in our worksites once?”

While employers usually believe that complete asbestos abatement is too expensive and risky, Johnston added, the BCFMWU feels that it is more risky not to remove the mineral. “And we are the ones who have to work in asbestos-containing worksites every day.”

But Fagen maintained that B.C. Ferries was doing what it reasonably could.

“We have all the proper procedures in place to manage asbestos, in accordance with WorkSafeBC policies and procedures,” he said. “All our employees are at as low a risk as we can possibly make it.”

Saskatoon-based NDP MP Sheri Benson introduced a private member’s bill proposing to stop all importing, exporting and manufacturing of asbestos, Bill C-321, in the fall (COHSN, Nov. 22). The bill became law on Dec. 14.


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