In 2019, a distinguished expert named Dr. Paul Demers was asked by the Ministry of Labour to investigate Ontario’s system of providing coverage for workers who attempt to receive compensation for occupational diseases and workplace cancers. His results were shocking.
Dr. Demers discovered that every year around 3,000 Ontarians are diagnosed with cancers due to their work, of which around only 170 actually receive compensation. It was clear that the vast majority of those who were exposed to cancer causing chemicals in the workplace never received any sort of compensation for the illnesses they received from doing their work. In some cases, they barely received any information about their illnesses at all.
Unfortunately, having worked for most of my life in a manufacturing plant I am all too aware of the chemicals we were exposed to. I must concede that workplace safety measures have dramatically improved from my early days on the shop floor, but it’s fair to say that many of us simply didn’t know enough about the materials we were dealing with back then. In some cases, we were dealing with chemicals and compounds before our scientists even really knew the long-term effects of that. Of course, we weren’t alone. In Northern Ontario, workers were subjected to a preventive measure against the lung disease silicosis. ‘McIntyre Powder’ was a finely ground aluminum dust blown into the mine dry (change room) before every shift — you could be fired for not inhaling it. It was used, with no scientific justification, to “coat the lungs” of miners to prevent damage from silica dust. Many decades later it would be proven to cause Parkinson’s Disease, and to contribute to the development of COPD. Further investigations are ongoing regarding potential links to sarcoidosis, cardiovascular disease, and other health issues. After decades of fighting, some of those workers finally received compensation. Others are denied, due to their medical records being no longer available to prove their diagnoses.
I didn’t realize how endemic this issue was until I met a group of workers from Peterborough. You may have heard from them as the plight of their families was movingly documented in the CBC documentary, Town of Widows. As you can draw from the name, the families representing a highly effected occupational disease area – known as a ‘cluster’ – have spent decades trying to understand what cut their loved ones’ lives so short, and demanding justice for them. In Peterborough’s case, the formidable group has gone to great lengths to prove their loved ones were routinely exposed to asbestos and other carcinogens, despite the company’s protests to the contrary. When WSIB refused to properly investigate the exposures, the victims and families did their own extensive investigation, which had to be funded by their union instead.
When we began to scratch at the surface we quickly realized two things. First, that these occupational disease clusters were widespread across the province, and two, that in each case, workers had taken up the struggle to get their illnesses or the illnesses of their loved ones recognized by the provincial compensation system known as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). If you’ve followed my career, you will know that I firmly believe the WSIB is broken and in need of deep reform. Too often I hear stories of workers in our community who are living on nothing as they attempt to get rightful compensation for their injuries. In fact, today in our province, 50 per cent of injured workers live in poverty. If you are injured in the workplace a flip of a coin decides whether or not you will be condemned to poverty. Clearly this system, originally designed to create insurance for working people, is now failing its core mandate.
Take the story of Jean Simpson. Jean is 85 years old and for three decades she’s been trying to get justice for her husband Bud, who worked at a fibreglass plant in Sarnia. Bud unfortunately passed in 1997 from his illness, two days before Christmas. Yet as recently as two weeks ago, the WSIB demanded she provide Bud’s overtime statements from the 1980s. This is how the WSIB treats a woman whose grief has been stretched out for three decades because of their action. When you talk to Jean, you can’t help but be moved by her courage and compassion. She is a very kind woman who has two goals, first to get justice for Bud and second, to ensure no other widow has to go through what she has. Her ask is simple – she wants the WSIB to stop waging war on her family.
Last week I held a press conference with a new group called the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance. It contained workers and widows from Sarnia, Peterborough, Dryden, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Kitchener-Waterloo and here in Niagara. There are no doubt many more similar clusters across the province. I offered these indefatigable advocates the chance to speak directly to the Minister of Labour. Their requests were simple – review the clear literature on this and amend the WSIB legislation to give their families justice.
When I think back to my own manufacturing experience, the reason I was there was simple – to put food on the table for my family. That’s the reason any of us were there, and no one should have their lives cut short because of that. It’s time the law caught up with the science and recognized that.