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Silicosis affecting miners in Labrador, according to new study

Medical audit examined silica-dust exposure at two mines


(Canadian OH&S News) — The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has released the results of a medical audit that studied the effects of silica-dust exposure at two mining properties in western Labrador. The audit sought to reveal whether both active and retired miners had developed silicosis over the previous decade.

Conducted by Horizon Occupational Health Solutions, the audit involved taking chest X-rays of 636 individuals who had worked at the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) mine in Labrador City and Wabush Mines in Wabush and then having a trained physician evaluate the results. According to the 43-page audit report, which was published on May 24, 35 of the subjects exhibited signs of silicosis.

“Some 25 of those people already knew they had silicosis,” said Perry Trimper, the Minister Responsible for Service N.L., which is the province’s occupational health and safety authority. “It was ten individuals that we’ve now asked to go and see a physician and have a thorough checkup, just to determine if, in fact, that may be the case.”

Trimper explained that the province had adopted a Silica Code of Practice in 2006 and, more recently, wanted to check whether measures around controlling silica dust had been effective in protecting workers. The majority of audit subjects who had contracted silicosis had been working at the sites prior to the Code adoption, he said.

“The unfortunate thing is that some ten individuals now may be realizing that they have silicosis,” noted Trimper. “That type of discussion has been ongoing with them since we got the results.”

The report made 11 recommendations, all of which Service N.L. immediately accepted. Among the recommendations:

— review the Code and update its roles and responsibilities;
— hire one or two respirologists as consulting specialists for suspected silicosis, and consider using one or two radiologists to read chest X-rays of workers who may have been exposed to silica dust;
— establish requirements regarding regular reviews of medical surveillance files of current employees; and
— review procedures of health-surveillance screening at workplaces to keep them compliant with the Code.

“We’re starting right away,” Trimper said about implementing the recommendations. “We’ve developed an action plan for each of them.” Service N.L. is scheduled to meet with the steering committee with which it has been working to discuss how to deal with the recommendations on June 1. “We’re going to be sharing our strategies as to how we can implement these actions as soon as possible.”

He added that he had not formed his own expectations about what the audit results would be. “What I was more interested in were the recommendations,” said Trimper. “What else does government need to do to make sure that, again, we have the workers properly protected? So that was the real outcome for me.”

Following the publication of the report, United Steelworkers Local 5795 — which represents workers at the IOC mine — expressed frustration with the employer’s failures of trust and honesty in a May 25 media release, in part because of the health issues.

“The company preaches safety and looks for ways to discipline our members,” said Local 5795 president Ron Thomas in a press statement, “but, meanwhile, turns a blind eye to fixing high dust conditions that affect the broader community.”

“What I’ve been focused on as the minister responsible,” said Trimper, “is to ensure that we’re doing everything we can.”

The Horizon report is accessible online at http://www.servicenl.gov.nl.ca/ohs/safety_info/pdf/medical_audit_report_2017.pdf.