Published in July 2015 issue of the Hotline - As the single leading cause of work-related deaths in British Columbia, mesothelioma and other serious illnesses resulting from exposure to asbestos continues to be diagnosed in workers.
For more than 100 years, various forms of asbestos have been mined in Canada and then used to manufacture building materials, friction products and heat resistant fabrics. The mineral was also used extensively for its heat, electrical and sound insulation capabilities, including by workers in BC’s electric utility and shipbuilding industries.
As a friable material made up of small fibres, asbestos can be released into the air as dust when being mined or disturbed and easily inhaled if protective measures are not taken. The lethal human health effects from inhaling asbestos fibres have been well documented, including a lengthy latency period from 10 to 50 years after exposure for diseases to show symptoms.
At one time, Canada was a leading exporter of asbestos, and while other countries were banning asbestos altogether - with more than 52 countries including Australia and most of the European Union - it wasn’t until 2011 that the last two asbestos mines in Canada shut down.
But asbestos continues to be used in manufacturing in Canada and products containing asbestos continue to be imported.
Recently, Health Canada has revised its position on the harmfulness of asbestos, and in a recent change to its website, without fanfare or a news release, now acknowledges that “asbestos, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases”, a stand welcome by many organizations including the Canadian Conference of Asbestos Workers and the Canadian Cancer Society. Calls to ban asbestos completely in this country and remove this toxic product from commercial, industrial and residential environments remain.
Although the use of asbestos has significantly declined since the early 1980s, regulations to protect workers from the harmful effects of exposure to asbestos continue to evolve. Today, anyone handling asbestos is at high risk of exposure if protective safety precautions are not taken. Unfortunately, some employers continue to show reckless disregard for their workers as protective measures and strict regulations, particularly in the building renovations and demolition industries, continue to be violated.
Workers aren’t the only ones who develop asbestos-related diseases. Family members of workers who have brought asbestos fibres home on their clothing and individuals who may have been exposed through their Do-It-Yourself residential repairs or renovations have also been diagnosed with or are at risk of developing these diseases.
The Workers Compensation Board in BC recognizes mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases as compensable medical conditions, and are acutely aware of the significant increases in fatality claims (see Table previous page) that correspond with similar increasing rates of occupational fatality statistics from asbestos exposure across Canada.
“There was a time when we just didn’t know there were any long term effects from exposure to asbestos,” said Doug McKay, Business Manager of Local 258 IBEW. “We didn’t take any precautions and it was used in just about everything - it was the miracle material. From the workers who mined it to the workers who had to use the products that were full of it - hell, even the buildings we worked in were made out of products containing asbestos, and some them still are. Who knew? Well, I think some people may have known, but it certainly wasn’t the workers. Thankfully these things are known these days and it has been on our radar for quite a few years now as more and more of our members are getting the diagnoses as a result of asbestos exposure in their workplaces many, many years ago.”
At BC Hydro, one of Local 258 IBEW’s major employers, protection from the harmful effects of asbestos exposure remains a high priority when it comes to safety in the workplace.
“BC Hydro’s Asbestos Management Program provides our workers with the training, procedures and protective equipment they need to be safe on the job. The program also looks at controlling identified asbestos-containing materials,” said Lisa Seppala, Director, Safety Strategy & Compliance, BC Hydro.
“We take asbestos exposure seriously. When an exposure incident occurs, we investigate the cause to prevent reoccurrence, and report it to WorkSafeBC. Should current or former workers develop an asbestos-related disease, we have an internal team who can provide support with the WSBC claims process.”
In an effort to document worker exposure to asbestos or other harmful agents, BC’s Workers Compensation Board has developed a registry where exposures can be documented. If you, or someone you know, has been exposed to asbestos in the workplace, you may want to register with the Workers Compensation Board.
The forms are available on-line at: http://www.worksafebc.com/forms/assets/PDF/41M1.pdf.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancerous tumour that starts in the cells of the mesothelium, a membrane that covers and protects major organs such as the lungs and heart, and the peritoneal cavity, where the liver, stomach and intestines are located.
Exposure to asbestos is the primary cause and risk factor for developing mesothelioma.
If you worked at a jobsite where asbestos or asbestos containing products were used, you may be at risk to develop mesothelioma.
In British Columbia, the Workers Compensation Board recognizes mesothelioma as a compensable occupational disease if the worker has been exposed to airborne asbestos dust in the workplace.
Other asbestos-related occupational diseases include lung cancer; diffuse pleural thickening or fibrosis; asbestosis; benign pleural effusion; larynx or pharynx cancer; gastrointestinal cancer.