January 18, 2019

Asbestos revealed as Canada’s top cause of workplace death

Asbestos exposure is the single largest on-the-job killer in Canada, accounting for more than a third of total workplace death claims approved last year and nearly a third since 1996, new national data obtained by The Globe and Mail show. The 368 death claims last year alone represent a higher number than fatalities from highway accidents, fires and chemical exposures combined.

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Since 1996, almost 5,000 approved death claims stem from asbestos exposure, making it by far the top source of workplace death in Canada.

The numbers come as the federal government – long a supporter of the asbestos industry – continues to allow the import of asbestos-containing products such as pipes and brake pads. A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year detailed how Ottawa has failed to caution its citizens about the impact that even low levels of asbestos can have on human health. Canada’s government does not clearly state that all forms of asbestos are known human carcinogens. Dozens of other countries including Australia, Britain, Japan and Sweden have banned asbestos.

Canada was one of the world’s largest exporters of asbestos for decades, until 2011, when the last mine in Quebec closed. The mineral’s legacy remains, as it was widely used in everything from attic insulation to modelling clay in schools and car parts and in a variety of construction materials such as cement, tiles and shingles. Health experts warn long latency periods mean deaths from asbestos will climb further.

“The indications are that we can expect an increase [in asbestos-related diseases] to continue for at least another decade or so. And that’s assuming we as a nation ban it now. If we don’t do that, we can expect it to continue to rise indefinitely, but perhaps at a lower rate,” said Colin Soskolne, an Edmonton-based professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.

In Australia, which banned asbestos in 2003, asbestos-related diseases continue to climb. The “responsible public-health action would be to ban the use of asbestos in Canada and other countries and replace it with substitutes,” said Dr. Soskolne, who is also chair of the International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, adding that there is “no demonstrated safe way to use it in Canada.”

Asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period of typically 20 to 40 years. Many victims die of mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos, and asbestosis, a fibrosis of the lungs.

The data come from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada and is typically updated every fall. For 2013, the most recent year for which annual data are available, it shows the single greatest cause of death was mesothelioma, with 193 fatalities. Asbestosis was a factor in 82 deaths.

“There’s some misconception that we banned it – and we haven’t,” said Jim Brophy, former director of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in both Windsor and Sarnia. Canada now has “an enormous public-health tragedy, disaster on our hands.”

All commercial forms of asbestos including chrysotile, the type formerly mined and most commonly used in Canada, are classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Its evidence shows there is no “safe” form of asbestos nor a threshold that it considers safe.

The agency’s position is at odds with Health Canada, whose website continues to play down the risks of asbestos exposure. It never clearly states that all forms of asbestos cause cancer, but rather that chrysotile asbestos is “less potent” than other forms and that there “is no significant health risk” if the fibres are enclosed or tightly bound.

“Asbestos poses potential health risks only when fibres are present in the air people breathe,” Health Canada says. The problem is there’s no way of ensuring that all products are always bound or enclosed. Brake pads wear down; renos stir up dust while pipes and tiles get sawed.

Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety informs its citizens that asbestos causes about 5,000 deaths per year – but there is no comparable information on Health Canada’s site. Health Canada told The Globe and Mail it has no plans to update its website, last revised in 2012.

And while the World Health Organization bluntly says “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis,” Health Canada still says asbestos fibres “can potentially” cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer “when inhaled in significant quantities.” The potential link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancers “is less clear,” it adds.

The workers’ compensation numbers don’t fully capture the total number of fatalities in Canada as not everyone is covered by workers’ comp and not every claim is successful. Separate Statistics Canada data show almost 4,000 people died of mesothelioma alone in the decade to 2011.

Heidi von Palleske says the numbers also don’t capture wives and children who have been affected. She calls herself an asbestos orphan – her father died in 2007, with asbestosis and lung and prostate cancer. He was a former worker at a plant run by Johns Manville, which made asbestos-fibre products. Her mother, who shook out and washed her husband’s clothes for years, died of mesothelioma in 2011 and Ms. von Palleske’s sister and brother have since been diagnosed with pleural plaque (a calcification of the lungs).

“It’s inexcusable,” said Ms. von Palleske. She wants to see a ban and better supports for families affected by workplace exposure.

Miners were among the first to be affected, but the range of occupations with workers exposed has expanded in recent decades.

About 152,000 workers in Canada are currently exposed to asbestos, according to Carex Canada, a research project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. The five largest groups are specialty-trade contractors, building construction, auto repairs and maintenance, ship and boat building and remediation and waste management.

Number of workplace fatalities in Canada

From approved workers’ compensation claims, 1996-2013

  • Asbestos
  • Other causes of workplace death






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Asbestos revealed as Canada’s top cause of workplace death

Patients had asbestos risk, say workers

Patients had asbestos risk, say workers


Last updated 08:07 06/05/2013

Industrial abseilers


CONCERNED: Industrial abseilers, from left, Neil Silcock, Liam Milner, Petra Doner and Jeff Richards who are not impressed with the response to them discovering they were dealing with asbestos while working on the Parkside Block at Christchurch Hospital.

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Contractors exposed to asbestos while working at Christchurch Hospital are outraged they may have unknowingly put patients and staff at risk to the poisonous substance while walking through active wards.

Official test results, obtained by The Press, confirm subcontractors for exterior building firm Goleman were exposed to asbestos while working on the roof of the hospital’s earthquake-damaged Parkside building in early April.

Several workers say they walked through wards and saw patients in hospital beds, unknowingly wearing potentially contaminated material, for more than a week after Goleman had received test results that confirmed the presence of white asbestos on the roof site.

The Government is investigating the issue after it received a complaint about the possible health risk but the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) said there was no concern for patient or staff safety.

The workers, who were removing moss and lichen from the hospital roof, were concerned the material they were working with contained asbestos and gave the CDHB maintenance officer a sample to test on March 27.

External chemical risk management company, Chemsafety, tested the sample and preliminary results confirming the presence of white asbestos were sent to the CDHB on April 2.

Goleman was informed of the test results and advised to stop work immediately by the CDHB.

An agenda for a Goleman staff meeting on April 3, which 25 of the 27 possible employees attended, mentioned the possibility of asbestos on the site with the phrase “stop, think and if not safe, don’t do”.

However, four contractors maintain they were not told about the risk. The work continued for the next 10 days.

Workers told The Press up to 10 Goleman employees may have been exposed to asbestos and said they were not advised of the potential health and safety hazard or told of the positive test results by Goleman.

A group of 10 workers approached Fletchers, the project manager for the hospital, amid growing concerns their workplace could be contaminated, on April 10. Fletchers immediately shut the site down.

Results from a second test sample were received by the CDHB on April 12, which once again came back as positive, and Goleman was again immediately informed.

On that same day, Goleman workers were ordered to pick up gear, including ropes, clothing and hoses, from the contaminated work site and carry it in sealed plastic bags through Parkside and into Christchurch Women’s Hospital, where they were due to begin work on the roof.

The workers say they were told by Goleman that the tests had come back positive later that same afternoon and were asked to bring in any clothing that may have been contaminated.

Goleman employees Jeff Richards and his partner, Petra Doner, both handed in their resignation on April 15, furious they were “put in danger without choice”.

Richards, an industrial abseiler who worked on the site, believes Goleman downplayed the risk of exposure to asbestos for the workers, hospital staff and patients and handled the situation “very poorly”.

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He said workers were not formally told about the asbestos until the site had been shut down and that they were not given any warning of the potential danger or any advice or extra protective equipment by Goleman after the positive test results.

Richards and fellow colleagues Liam Milner and Neil Silcock said they walked through corridors “past patients in hospital beds”, and used the same elevators as doctors, nurses and the public during the week the work continued at the site.

“The gear we were wearing and carrying was potentially covered in asbestos and there is a good chance those people were exposed to it that we walked past in the hospital,” Richards said.

“It’s a massive public health issue.”

Goleman general manager Luke Goleman disputed his employees’ claims and said the firm “took action the moment we found there has been the slightest risk of asbestos”. Goleman changed the work methodology to protect staff.

Clothing samples taken from the workers for testing have all returned free of any contamination, he said.

He believed Goleman handled the situation well.

“Goleman acted on all information as it came to hand and were proactive in the initial testing of the roofing material to assure the safety of our staff.”

CDHB chief executive David Meates was made aware of the situation only on Friday morning, after Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove informed him.

Four Goleman employees (Richards, Doner, Milner and Silcock) provided Cosgrove with written statements and a copy of the tests results at his mobile office in Rangiora on April 29.

“These are some very serious allegations. We’re talking about patients, staff and Goleman workers being exposed to potentially contaminated material,” Cosgrove said.

Meates said he was confident CDHB staff acted “promptly and appropriately” when they were first alerted to the possibility of asbestos being present in the roofing material.

“I would like to stress that at no time has there been any concerns for patient or staff safety.”

A CDHB spokeswoman said last night there she would find out if the workers had had access to hospital wards.

– © Fairfax NZ News


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Patients had asbestos risk, say workers