‘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
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.”
Gayle Wannan holds a photo of her husband, Lynden, at her Kitchener apartment. Lynden died at age 49 after 26 years working at Uniroyal.
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.
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.
Don Rastel worked at Uniroyal for 20 years before he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014