GE workers win reversal of rejected cancer claims
WSIB overturns previous denials of more than 60% of claims in ongoing review of illnesses
After a decades-long battle for compensation, the voices of ailing General Electric Peterborough workers are finally being heard.
About 64 per cent of previously denied claims of occupational disease made by former employees at one of Canada’s oldest industrial operations have now been overturned, the Star has learned.
The reversals are part of an ongoing review by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which committed to reopen 250 rejected claims for a range of devastating illnesses, following a Star investigation into hazardous working conditions at the Peterborough factory. Of the 47 files reviewed to date, the WSIB has now approved 30.
Earlier this year, health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo published a comprehensive report which found that GE Peterborough workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals in their workplace between1945 and 2000, at levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe.
WSIB spokesperson Christine Arnott said the board’s review is considering “new information or evidence that was not available when an original claim decision was made,” including the DeMatteo report.
“We want to make sure our decisions reflect the best available scientific evidence and current knowledge of historical exposures,” she said.
A significant part of the evidence that originally weighed against the 660 claims made by GE Peterborough workers between 2004 and 2016 was a health study conducted by General Electric in 2003.
It was a late spring day in Peterborough when Sue James started cleaning out the office that served as the epicentre for a long and arduous journey: seeking justice for hundreds of General Electric retirees who believe years of exposure to toxic substances made them sick.
The cleanup was a hopeful gesture, a prayer that the journey was near completion. So much had happened already in 2017: most notably, the completion of an exhaustive study detailing decades of exposure to toxic substances at the factory and a commitment by the provincial workers’ compensation board to review 250 denied claims for a range of devastating cancers.
James, whose father died of a tumour in his lung and four on his spine after three decades at the factory, felt almost ready to exhale. But not quite. A year on from a Star investigation that revealed the extent of toxic exposures at one of Canada’s oldest industrial facilities, workers say they have scored some important victories. But they say not all the necessary solutions have materialized yet — testing the patience of some and trying the spirit of those who have led a decades-long fight.
For the group of retirees — many of whom have had battles with cancer or watched loved ones fall victim to it — time is at a premium.
“As well as having some high points, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster,” James said. “We’ve lost a lot of people this last year.”
As part its 2016 investigation, the Star reviewed hundreds of pages of documentation that showed unsafe levels of toxic substances at the facility between 1960 and about 1980, as well as repeated warnings by government inspectors about poor housekeeping, shoddy ventilation and lack of personal protective equipment.
But it wasn’t until 2004 that an intake clinic sought to identify potential occupational diseases amongst retirees. Of the 660 compensation claims subsequently made for a range of occupational diseases — including brain, bowel and lung cancer — about half were denied, abandoned or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence.
This September, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) announced it would review more than 250 previously denied claims — which workers call one of their biggest wins to date. Of the 47 completed reviews, 30 denials have already been overturned — about 64 per cent.
Over the past year, retirees have also met with Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn regularly to discuss solutions for ailing employees and family, including ideas like presumptive legislation that could make it easier for workers to win compensation claims for occupational diseases.
Roger Fowler, 71, who is seeking to have his denied claim for cancer of the rectum overturned, says Flynn has gone so far as to call him personally on numerous occasions to provide updates on his file.
Developments like these are what give Steve Crossley, whose father-inlaw Ed Condon died of a massive brain tumour after 42 years at GE, some hope.
But when the Star met with a dozen GE families this December, all of them agreed there is more to be done.
Mark Quade’s parents spent most of their lives working at General Electric. He lost them both before they turned 50.
For many years, Quade says he harboured a quiet anger at the working conditions, including exposure to as- bestos, which he believes contributed to their death — his father, Victor, from a massive heart attack at age 48, his mother, Louise, of cancer at 49.
“Knowing what I know, I’m bitter. I’m ugly over it. I lost my parents at a very young age,” he told the Star.
But coming from Trenton, Ont., where GE had moved some of its operations, Quade had never connected with the tight-knit group of Peterborough workers. When his wife urged him to read about their struggle, he was initially reluctant.
“I said, I don’t want nothing to do with General Electric,” he recalls.
But the injustice gnawed at him, as did the memory of his mother’s last day of work — the day she crumpled over from a sharp pain in her back.
“Knowing what I know, I’m bitter. I’m ugly over it. I lost my parents at a very young age.” MARK QUADE SON OF TWO GENERAL ELECTRIC EMPLOYEES
“That’s when they found a tumour,” he says. “The doctor said, ‘make sure she has a good Christmas.’ ” She died five months later. This fall, Quade finally decided to reach out to the group of Peterborough retirees. Over the past year, James says there’s been a significant uptick in GE workers and surviving family members getting in touch about diseases they believe are workrelated — aided in large part by information sessions co-ordinated this spring by the Ministry of Labour.
Christine Arnott, the WSIB’s spokesperson, said the board has also received108 phone calls since September resulting in 41 new claims being filed.
The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), which provides expert research to establish whether illnesses are workrelated, is also trying to provide assistance to104 workers or their families who are filing new claims or whose claims are being considered by the WSIB for the first time.
Quade, who is filing a new claim on behalf of his mother, says he is worried that funding for OHCOW — which plays an essential role in building the evidence required to submit claims — still hasn’t materialized.
OHCOW’s request for additional money from the province to process new claims, first submitted in June, is currently being reviewed. A letter this month from the organization to the Ministry of Labour says the lack of funds has created “significant frustration” for staff and workers.
Labour minister Flynn said he was “pleased with the progress that WSIB has made to date in reviewing GE Peterborough worker cases.” “The GE Peterborough worker community has been the driving force for this, and Jeff (Leal, MPP for Peterborough) and I will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them through this process and beyond. If cases that have been rejected by the WSIB require further work by OHCOW, we are willing to explore that option,” Flynn added.
Time, workers say, is ticking. This year, General Electric announced it would close its sprawling Peterborough plant, which made some of the world’s biggest motors for more than a century — and served as the city’s economic engine.
In a statement to the Star, GE Canada’s director of communications Jenna LaPlante said the company continues to co-operate with the WSIB as it re-examines compensation claims.
Although Quade is new to the GE Peterborough group, some of its core members are now gone.
Last year, the Star profiled Diane Carl, whose husband Art worked at GE for four decades and died of colon cancer that spread to his liver, lung and brain. His claim will now be reconsidered, but the breakthrough has come too late for the wife who advocated tirelessly on his behalf. She died three months before the WSIB review was announced.
“Each time this happens, it takes a little piece of your heart away,” James said.
She is still orchestrating the meetings she hopes will someday become redundant. Although the wheels of justice have started turning, workers say the pace can still be frustrating when the dignity of their loved ones is at stake.
After decades of disappointment — sometimes by the very institutions meant to protect them — trust is often in short supply. “We have showed you what we did for a living,” said Jim Dufresne, a 71-year-old prostate cancer survivor who for many years formed part of the factory’s so-called labour gang assigned to the dirtiest tasks in the plant.
“Now show us what you do, government.”