‘We got a raw deal’

MPPs call on the Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board to re­view hun­dreds of de­nied claims from for­mer rub­ber work­ers. Part 3 in our Rub­ber Town se­ries

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - GREG MERCER

KITCH­ENER — Lyn­den Wan­nan worked at Uniroyal for 26 years, un­til the day he col­lapsed on the fac­tory floor. He was dead in un­der a year at age 49.

Wan­nan was di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer, a dis­ease that started with nag­ging pain in his back and ended with the fa­ther of two rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing un­til his fi­nal breath in 2001.

“He just wilted away. He was skin and bones by the end. It was just ‘bang’ from the day they took him in the am­bu­lance to the day he died,” said his widow, Gayle Wan­nan.

Wan­nan’s story is among hun­dreds from for­mer rub­ber work­ers in Kitch­ener, which, at one time, em­ployed more peo­ple in the rub­ber in­dus­try than any­where else in Can- ada. The le­gacy of those jobs, they say, has been early deaths, fam­i­lies left strug­gling to pay bills and re­tire­ments van­ish­ing in a blur of med­i­cal treat­ments.

Many blame their work in the rub­ber in­dus­try for ex­pos­ing them to car­cino­gens they be­lieve caused their ill­nesses. They

point to med­i­cal stud­ies that say rub­ber work­ers have higher rates of many types of can­cer as a re­sult of their haz­ardous work.

Yet the vast ma­jor­ity of more than 400 oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease com­pen­sa­tion claims from lo­cal rub­ber work­ers have been re­jected by the prov­ince since 2002. Just 61 claims, or 15 per cent, were ap­proved. Crit­ics say that’s the sign of a bro­ken sys­tem.

Wan­nan ap­plied for com­pen­sa­tion through On­tario’s Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board on be­half of her hus­band. Lyn­den’s case dragged on for 12 years of hear­ings and ap­peals be­fore it was ul­ti­mately de­nied.

“I felt like they were con­stantly try­ing to stall and de­lay. I didn’t stand a chance,” she said. “All that for them to just say, ‘Nope.’ We got a raw deal.”

The Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board de­clined to re­spond to a grow­ing cho­rus of peo­ple call­ing on the board to re­view cases like Wan­nan’s and hun­dreds of other rub­ber work­ers.

Eliz­a­beth Wit­mer, the board chair who rep­re­sented Kitch­ener-Water­loo for 22 years as an MPP, de­clined to speak to the Record about the is­sue. The board also said CEO Thomas Tea­hen wasn’t avail­able to talk about plight of rub­ber work­ers in this prov­ince.

Laura Mae Lindo, the MPP for Kitch­ener-Cen­tre, where many of Kitch­ener’s rub­ber plants used to op­er­ate, says the WSIB needs to do bet­ter.

“These work­ers are peo­ple who built Kitch­ener,” she said. “It’s heart­break­ing to see all of the peo­ple who’ve walked through all of the bu­reau­cracy, all of the pa­per­work, just to have their claims de­nied.”

The WSIB sys­tem is sup­posed to pro­tect work­ers when they need it the most, she said. At the very least, these claims for oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease de­serve to be re­viewed, Lindo said.

“The very least we can do is that when they come for­ward with these claims, they’re taken se­ri­ously,” she said. “There’s too many of these cases. It’s far too co­in­ci­den­tal for us to not see it as a big­ger is­sue, across an en­tire in­dus­try ... These work­ers de­serve the loy­alty and re­spect that they gave.”

Lindo and her NDP col­league, Kitch­ener-Water­loo MPP Cather­ine Fife, say they in­tend to raise the is­sue of rub­ber work­ers at Queen’s Park.

“We’re try­ing to push the WSIB to re-eval­u­ate how they as­sess oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease,” Fife said.

“Un­til 1978, em­ploy­ers had no le­gal obli­ga­tion to in­form work­ers they are be­ing ex­posed to haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als. We have to right that wrong. We have to make some kind of resti­tu­tion to these work­ers for the sac­ri­fices they made.”

Amy Fee, the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MPP for Kitch­ener South-He­speler, said she couldn’t com­ment on the work­ers’ WSIB claims. But she said it’s im­por­tant the prov­ince con­tinue to up­date ex­po­sure lim­its for haz­ardous sub­stances.

“When a loved one be­comes sick, it takes a toll on the whole fam­ily. When we fear they may have be­come sick be­cause of ex­po­sures or de­mands from do­ing their job, it be­comes all that much more tragic,” Fee said in a state­ment.

“That is why it is im­por­tant for the Min­istry of Labour to reg­u­larly re­view and up­date oc­cu­pa­tional ex­po­sure lim­its to en­sure the health­i­est work places pos­si­ble for all On­tar­i­ans.”

Marty War­ren, a for­mer BF Goodrich rub­ber worker who’s now di­rec­tor of the On­tario and At­lantic Canada dis­trict of the United Steel­work­ers union, said On­tario can’t ig­nore the is­sue of sick, dy­ing and dead rub­ber work­ers any longer.

“My sense is they’re try­ing to sweep this un­der the car­pet. It’s an in­dus­try that’s been gone for so many years, with so many plants closed, that per­haps the govern­ment is keep­ing their head in the sand hop­ing that those who have is­sues will pass away,” he said. “It’ll just re­main a dirty lit­tle se­cret.”

He be­lieves the union’s cam­paign to cre­ate an in­take clinic in 2002 to help work­ers file for oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease com­pen­sa­tion was a fac­tor in Miche­lin North Amer­ica’s de­ci­sion to close the Goodrich Drive plant in 2006.

The French-owned com­pany blamed over­pro­duc­tion in the pas­sen­ger tire mar­ket for the clos­ing, which put 1,100 peo­ple out of work.

War­ren thinks many claims for com­pen­sa­tion were re­jected be­cause the WSIB de­manded tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion for­mer work­ers strug­gled to ob­tain once the fac­tory closed and the union lo­cal dis­solved.

Rub­ber work­ers de­serve to have their claims re­viewed, War­ren said. But the prov­ince also needs to im­prove fund­ing for the Oc­cu­pa­tional Health Clin­ics for On­tario Work­ers so more re­search can be done on the con­nec­tion be­tween the rub­ber in­dus­try and ill­ness later in life.

•••

Crit­ics say On­tario’s com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem vastly un­der­serves work­ers suf­fer­ing from oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases.

“There’s a cul­ture of de­nial that per­me­ates the whole sys­tem,” said Bob DeMat­teo, a re­tired oc­cu­pa­tional health re­searcher.

He and his wife Dale DeMat­teo have spent years ad­vo­cat­ing for sick Gen­eral Elec­tric work­ers in Peter­bor­ough. They say there’s a lot of par­al­lels with Kitch­ener’s rub­ber in­dus­try.

DeMat­teo says the prov­ince al­lowed some of its big­gest in­dus­trial em­ploy­ers to op­er­ate with im­punity for years, not en­forc­ing ba­sic health and safety stan­dards when they knew work­ers’ health was at risk.

“The way we reg­u­late these in­dus­tries, it’s like giv­ing em­ploy­ers a li­cence to kill,” he said. “And the body count is only go­ing to mount.”

After about 15 years of lob­by­ing, DeMat­teo’s group man­aged to con­vince the WSIB to for­mally re­view hun­dreds of re­jected oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease claims from GE work­ers. About one-third were over­turned — but he ar­gues the sys­tem won’t be re­formed with­out a full pub­lic in­quiry.

The board has slashed com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments by about half since 2010, a part of an aus­ter­ity pro­gram, and re­cently cut em­ploy­ers’ con­tri­bu­tions to the board by 30 per cent. But the WSIB says it’s do­ing the best it can to as­sess whether some­one’s job played a role in their ill­ness.

“When a loved one be­comes sick, it’s nat­u­ral to ask why. We ask that ques­tion too. That’s why our ev­i­dence-based de­ci­sion­mak­ing re­lies on the best sci­ence avail­able that may link work­place ex­po­sures to a per­son’s con­di­tion, in ad­di­tion to other rel­e­vant fac­tors,’ said WSIB spokesper­son Chris­tine Arnott.

In many cases, rub­ber work­ers or their fam­i­lies be­lieve their jobs made them sick, but they never filed a claim with the WSIB.

Jeanette Daw­itschek’s hus­band Peter died at 67 of a rare form of leukemia 14 months after he was di­ag­nosed in 2015. The dis­ease turned him from a burly, strong out­doors­man into a shell of a man.

He’d worked for Uniroyal for more than 23 years, un­til the plant closed in 2006. His widow is con­vinced he was ex­posed to chem­i­cals that ul­ti­mately to led to his death.

“There was noth­ing they could do for him,” Daw­itschek said. “I have no doubt in my mind that it was to do with the chem­i­cals they worked with ... I feel they should take re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

A gen­er­a­tion of work­ers were lured from across the prov­ince to Kitch­ener’s rub­ber plants, to fac­to­ries that paid good wages and would hire ap­pli­cants with­out a high school ed­u­ca­tion.

“They were good jobs at the time. Now we’re pay­ing the price,” said Den­nis Brooks, 65.

He and his four broth­ers fol­lowed their fa­ther into the rub­ber fac­tory. Brooks and his broth­ers were laid off when the BF Goodrich/Ep­ton plant at King and Vic­to­ria streets closed in the 1990s, but he says the job re­mained em­bed­ded in­side him for years. Even years after his em­ploy­ment ended, Brooks said the tell­tale odour of rub­ber pro­cess­ing would sur­prise him if he per­spired heav­ily.

“You could smell it in your pores when­ever you’d sweat,” he said. “If I go in a sauna, I can still smell the rub­ber com­ing out of my hair.”

Brooks also re­calls as­bestos, used to in­su­late wa­ter and heat­ing pipes run­ning through the plant, fall­ing from the ceil­ing “like snow” any time a fork­lift would ac­ci­den­tally hit a post.

“When I started there, the old-timers told me if you’re go­ing to work in the ware­house, you’re go­ing to get prostate can­cer,” he said.

Dif­fer­ent de­part­ments in the plant were known for dif­fer­ent types of can­cer, he said. His brother Tony Brooks de­vel­oped lym­phoma can­cer after work­ing years in the mill room, where work­ers mixed the chem­i­cals to be­gin the rub­ber mak­ing process. His brother’s can­cer is now in re­mis­sion after mul­ti­ple rounds of chemo­ther­apy.

“I’ve been to five fu­ner­als in the past seven months of guys I worked with,” said Brooks, who blames his par­a­lyzed di­aphragm on his time at the plant.

Brooks, whose fa­ther died at 60 after 40 years at Uniroyal, thinks that rub­ber work­ers should get a set­tle­ment sim­i­lar to the one On­tario of­fered fire­fight­ers — which man­dates that any fire­fighter di­ag­nosed with can­cer after 1960 should be au­to­mat­i­cally el­i­gi­ble or WSIB com­pen­sa­tion, due to chem­i­cal ex­po­sures from their work. That in­cludes smok­ers, a life­style fac­tor of­ten used to dis­miss rub­ber work­ers’ claims.

But DeMat­teo ar­gues even fire­fight­ers still face an up­hill bat­tle to get can­cer ap­proved for com­pen­sa­tion by the WSIB. About three-quar­ters of fire­fight­ers’ claims are still re­jected, he said.

•••

To­day, Kitch­ener is scat­tered with “rub­ber wi­d­ows” — women who lost hus­bands to can­cer and other ill­nesses after years of work­ing in lo­cal rub­ber plants. Some of them say the WSIB claims aren’t about money but about fi­nally get­ting ac­knowl­edge­ment that their hus­bands were taken from them too soon.

“We were robbed, not fi­nan­cially, but we were robbed,” said Wan­nan, now 70.

Her hus­band’s death meant the Wan­nans had to sell their fam­ily home. Gayle moved into a small apart­ment near the fac­tory, and has spent her re­tire­ment years alone. Lyn­den used his sav­ings to pay for a year’s rent be­fore he died.

“We are vic­tims. Our hus­bands are vic­tims,” she said. “It’s not any­thing to do with money. It’s just that we can never get them back. It’s just that those poor souls need to be ac­knowl­edged.”

Many rub­ber work­ers never reached re­tire­ment age. Cam­bridge’s Don Ras­tel worked at Uniroyal for 20 years be­fore he was di­ag­nosed with colon can­cer in 2014. It soon spread into his back, lungs, spine and lymph nodes, killing him at age 56.

“Not a day goes by I don’t think about it,” said his fa­ther, Hank Ras­tel. “He suf­fered quite a bit. His fi­nal years were pretty painful.”

His fa­ther al­ways felt there was a con­nec­tion be­tween his son’s can­cer and his work at the tire plant, but he didn’t pur­sue com­pen­sa­tion.

Bill Curry, a re­tired chem­i­cal tech­nol­o­gist who han­dled the WHMIS pro­gram for haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als at the Uniroyal plant on Strange Street, said some work­ers should rightly be con­cerned.

Rub­ber man­u­fac­tur­ing uses ac­cel­er­ants and an­tiox­i­dants that speed up the cur­ing process and make prod­ucts more durable, but they can also be harm­ful to hu­mans, he said. Curry re­mem­bers fumes from new tires stacked in the ware­house dis­colour­ing the paint on the walls.

Draw­ing a line be­tween some­one’s can­cer and their ex­po­sure to cer­tain car­cino­gens is com­pli­cated, Curry said. Some parts of the plant were worse than oth­ers and not ev­ery­one would have been ex­posed to the same level of haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als, he said.

But there’s no ques­tion that rub­ber work­ers did dif­fi­cult jobs that had the po­ten­tial to im­pact their health years later. And they have a right to be ask­ing ques­tions to­day, he said.

“There were some things I saw that weren’t right,” he said. “We can’t out­right dis­miss their con­cerns.”

MATHEW MCCARTHY WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD

Gayle Wan­nan holds a photo of her hus­band, Lyn­den, at her Kitch­ener apart­ment. Lyn­den died at age 49 after 26 years work­ing at Uniroyal.

ROBERT WIL­SON THE RECORD

Den­nis Brooks and his broth­ers were laid off when the BF Goodrich/Ep­ton plant closed in the 1990s, but he says the job was em­bed­ded in­side him.

Peter Daw­itschek worked for Uniroyal for more than 23 years, un­til the plant closed in 2006. He was di­ag­nosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2015 and died within 14 months.

MATHEW MCCARTHY WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD

Lyn­den Wan­nan, seen in a fam­ily photo, worked at Uniroyal for 26 years, un­til he col­lapsed on the fac­tory floor. He died at age 49 of pan­cre­atic can­cer.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

Don Ras­tel worked at Uniroyal for 20 years be­fore he was di­ag­nosed with colon can­cer in 2014

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