(Canadian OH&S News) — Alarm bells have been raised about the presence of asbestos and lack of sprinklers at a federal building in Ottawa, following two recent CBC media reports. But health and safety concerns at 875 Heron Road may have been resolved years ago, according to a union representative in Ottawa.
“Yes, there were certainly issues, but they were dealt with, as far as I can see,” said Marc Briere, the first national vice-president of the Union of Taxation Employees, the union representing employees at the Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC)-owned building. “And corrective measures have been taken.”
Briere noted that asbestos had been there from the start, but believed that workers had been aware of it for a while, although he could not say for how long. Since Briere was alerted to the CBC investigation, he has been talking with the local health and safety committee and going through years of reports.
The CBC report detailed the story of a former electrician, Denis Lapointe, who had worked for the Canada Revenue Agency from 1992 to 2008 at the Heron Rd. building and suffered negative health effects, which he now believes asbestos exposure caused. Lapointe claimed that his employer had deliberately withheld information that he had the right to know, such as potential hazardous exposure and his own medical records. The claims were the subject of a 2012 complaint to the Public Service Labour Relations Board. Lapointe uncovered, through Access to Information requests, documents that he believed showed evidence of asbestos exposure to workers during his employment.
According to Lapointe, a partial response to his request of the three-year federal investigation was received on Dec. 17, 2019. The material indicates the main investigators had refused to consider the 16 years of required asbestos assessments that showed the issues had went unaddressed, he said.
In 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Labour has confirmed that a health and safety officer is investigating a complaint related to the possible exposure of employees to asbestos at the building. “The Government of Canada is committed to preventing accidents and injury to [sic] health of employees in workplaces under federal jurisdiction,” said Andrew McGrath, director of communications for the Office of the Minister of Labour, in an email.
Most federally owned buildings in Ottawa contain asbestos because they were built before the dangers of asbestos were known, said Briere. Based on reports and conversations with local health and safety committee members, he believes some of the asbestos at 875 Heron Rd. has been treated and removed and some of it encapsulated to protect workers. “I don’t have the details, but I see multiple reports on actions that have been taken by the employer CRA and Public Works.”
Briere related that the co-chair of the committee had no concerns with air quality in the building and that a management plan ensured the safety of employees. But he admitted it was not an ideal situation. “Removal of asbestos is always the best solution because it eliminates the hazard completely,” he said.
The PWGCSC said that due to the age of the building, it was not uncommon for asbestos to be present. “That is why PWGSC commissions third-party reports on a yearly basis. These reports help identify new areas where asbestos may pose a risk,” said Annie Trepanier, media and public-relations manager for PWGSC.
“When new issues are raised, PWGSC informs the tenants as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Committee,” she added. “The PWGSC asbestos-management plan is also updated to ensure all contractors, maintenance staff or other workers are aware of the location of the asbestos, so it is not disturbed.”
Based on reports and inspections, PWGSC said, it follows an asbestos-abatement and -encapsulation program, which includes securing access to areas containing asbestos that may pose a risk, indicating its presence through signage and undertaking repairs or the removal of asbestos.
Committee not concerned about lack of sprinklers
Updates to the sprinkler system to install sprinklers throughout all floors of the high-rise building have not been made due to asbestos contamination, according to a subsequent CBC report. While not having sprinklers throughout all floors of a high-rise building contravenes current fire-code regulations, if the building was in compliance with the code when it was constructed, modifications are not necessary until major renovations take place, said a PWGSC spokesperson.
“When the building was constructed, it was compliant with the applicable code,” said Trepanier. “There is no requirement to retroactively address code changes until such time as major renovations are undertaken.”
Briere said the building did have sprinklers and that the local health and safety committee was not concerned because the building had a first-rate emergency plan. “When it comes down to it, they [the sprinklers] are not there to save lives. It’s there to protect the building,” he said, stressing that sprinklers cannot force workers to evacuate the building more quickly.
The CRA would not comment on the specific complaints, but a spokesperson said that the joint health and safety committee addresses health and safety hazards and shares information with employees.
“Our management and organizational culture ensures health and safety are fundamental considerations in every aspect of CRA business,” said Philippe Brideau, assistant director of media relations. The CRA’s occupational health and safety program not only meets, but exceeds legislative requirements, according to Brideau.
The union would be meeting with the CRA and the investigating safety officer soon to find out more, said Briere. “We are looking into it very seriously, and we are trying to make sure that we get all the answers to reassure our people. The employer is fully aware of the importance of the situation.”