As­bestos scare for Car­bon­ear town work­ers

Town un­aware of con­tam­i­na­tion, tak­ing steps to pro­tect work­ers


Be­tween Thurs­day, May 15 and Tues­day, May 20, four em­ploy­ees with the Town of Car­bon­ear’s pub­lic works depart­ment re­ceived letters from their em­ployer in the mail.

In each let­ter, the work­ers — three labour­ers and a heavy equip­ment op­er­a­tor — were in­formed there was a chance they had been ex­posed to as­bestos on a job­site.

As­bestos is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring fi­bre for­merly used in build­ings and struc­tures be­cause of its highly durable qual­i­ties. It is no longer used be­cause it is a dan­ger­ous sub­stance when the fi­bres are in­haled, and has been known to cause chronic ill­nesses, such as mesothe­lioma, as­bestos-re­lated lung cancer, as­besto­sis and pleu­ral thick­en­ing.

No knowl­edge of pres­ence

The work­ers, who The Com­pass has de­cided not to iden­tify due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sit­u­a­tion, were re­spon­si­ble for clear­ing the side­walks in front of the for­mer Bond Theatre on Wa­ter Street fol­low­ing a fire April 23.

The build­ing, which had been ren­o­vated about a decade ago, had vinyl sid­ing placed over as­bestos sid­ing (tran­site sheet­ing), some­thing the town was un­aware of.

“It never oc­curred to staff that there was a threat of ex­po­sure to as­bestos, other­wise, (work­ers) would not have been sent to the site, nor would (they) have placed them­selves in an un­safe sit­u­a­tion,” town ad­min­is­tra­tor Cyn­thia Davis told The Com­pass.

It was a few days af­ter the pos­si­ble ex­po­sure when one of the work­ers wit­nessed a clean-up crew in pro­tec­tive at­tire pick­ing up de­bris. When he spoke with them, he learned as­bestos was present.

A call was made to Oc­cu­pa­tional Health and Safety (OH&S) and the town, and soon af­ter a sign was erected no­ti­fy­ing the pub­lic and site work­ers that there was as­bestos present.

Low-risk, says OH&S

Ser­vice NL spokesper­son Vanessa Cole­man-Sadd in­formed The Com­pass through email a com­plaint had been is­sued on May 7 by an af­fected em­ployee. Cole­man-Sadd re­ferred to the ex­po­sure as “non-fri­able, which has min­i­mal risk for ex­po­sure.”

The as­bestos aware­ness pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Toronto com­pares fri­able as­bestos with non-fri­able.

It de­scribes non-fri­able as a “prod­uct … in which the as­bestos fi­bres are bound or locked into the prod­uct ma­trix, so that the fi­bres are not read­ily re­leased. Such a prod­uct would present a risk for fi­bre re­lease, only when it is sub­ject to sig­nif­i­cant abra­sion through ac­tiv­i­ties such as sand­ing or cut­ting with elec­tric power tools.”

Sid­ing and other solid as­bestos ma­te­ri­als fit into that cat­e­gory.

A con­cern that the fire, the use of high pres­sure fire hoses on the build­ing and the use of leaf blow­ers be­ing con­sid­ered sig­nif­i­cant abra­sion was dis­cussed by a worker. He be­lieved the ag­i­ta­tion may have lead to the break­ing apart of the prod­uct, thus a dan­ger to those on site with­out pro­tec­tive gear.

One worker was es­pe­cially con­cerned be­cause tools used for the job in­cluded leaf blow­ers, which could have blown as­bestos rem­nants into the air, and po­ten­tially into their lungs.

It could take years or decades be­fore ef­fects can be seen from pos­si­ble ex­po­sure.

An as­bestos re­moval com­pany was brought in to help clear de­bris. There are some 100 reg­is­tered as­bestos abate­ment con­trac­tors with the provin­cial govern­ment.

Next steps

In the letters, work­ers were ad­vised to see a doc­tor, just in case ex­po­sure had taken place. At least two had x-rays com­pleted on their re­s­pi­ra­tory sys­tem by Fri­day, May 23.

If the ex­po­sure does cause any health is­sues, Workplace Health, Safety and Com­pen­sa­tion com­mis­sion out­lined for The Com­pass what types of treat­ment an em­ployee could re­ceive.

“Com­pen­sa­tion may in­clude wage-loss ben­e­fits; health care ben­e­fits to cover the costs of med­i­ca­tions, treat­ments, as­sis­tive de­vices, per­sonal care and other ser­vices as med­i­cally nec­es­sary; and, a lump sum per­ma­nent func­tional im­pair­ment award for per­ma­nent re­stric­tions re­sult­ing from the dis­ease,” Carla Riggs, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, told The Com­pass in an email.

This was the first in­ci­dent the town ad­min­is­tra­tor has been made aware of since she be­gan her po­si­tion 16 years ago. Davis has con­firmed more train­ing in haz­ard recog­ni­tion will be com­pleted.

“This sit­u­a­tion has been an eye-opener for ev­ery­one … but it pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity now to com­plete fur­ther train­ing in haz­ard recog­ni­tion and to iden­tify the pos­si­bil­ity of such a haz­ard for fu­ture jobs,” ex­plained Davis. “(It will also help) iden­tify con­trols for im­ple­men­ta­tion in (the) fu­ture so staff are not ex­posed to haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als that could post a risk to their health and safety.”

Photo by Melissa Jenk­ins/The Com­pass

A sign has been placed on a pole in Car­bon­ear in front of what re­mains of the for­mer Bond Theatre to warn the pub­lic about as­bestos on site. The sign was erected af­ter four town work­ers were pos­si­bly ex­posed to the harsh sub­stance.

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