On­tario shouldn’t ig­nore re­tired rub­ber work­ers

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page -

There are hun­dreds of sick and ag­ing re­tired rub­ber work­ers in this com­mu­nity cry­ing out for help to­day. No one in the On­tario govern­ment seems to be lis­ten­ing.

No one in the prov­ince’s richly funded Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board — which is em­pow­ered to of­fer com­pen­sa­tion and is chaired by Water­loo’s own Eliz­a­beth Wit­mer — is even in­clined to say much pub­licly about the sit­u­a­tion.

Per­haps they think si­lence will make the prob­lem dis­ap­pear. It won’t.

The men and women in need helped build this com­mu­nity. They toiled away, ex­posed daily to what are now known, can­cer-caus­ing ma­te­ri­als, at com­pa­nies like BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Ep­ton In­dus­tries, Do­min­ion Tire and Mer­chants’ Rub­ber Co. when Kitch­ener was Canada’s “rub­ber cap­i­tal.”

Those com­pa­nies are all gone — the last big one pulled out in 2006. Many of those who worked there are gone, too, and hun­dreds of their sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers are con­vinced their deaths were di­rectly linked to one of these rub­ber fac­to­ries.

But as The Record’s Rub­ber Town se­ries, by re­porter Greg Mercer, has re­vealed, there are still hun­dreds of re­tired rub­ber work­ers wrestling with se­ri­ous health is­sues they also be­lieve were caused by their work­place en­vi­ron­ment. In what should be their golden years, they suf­fer from de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­nesses, grind­ing poverty and of­ten a pre­ma­ture death.

It’s not that they haven’t turned to the WSIB for help. But their odds might have been bet­ter buy­ing a lot­tery ticket. Of the 404 Work­place Safety In­sur­ance Board claims filed be­tween 2002 and 2017 by for­mer em­ploy­ees of some of Kitch­ener’s largest rub­ber com­pa­nies, a mea­gre 15 per cent were ac­cepted.

To be sure, the WSIB faces huge chal­lenges in de­ter­min­ing what made a re­tired worker be­come ill. What if the worker smoked heav­ily? How can it be de­ter­mined after decades pre­cisely what fac­tors in the past caused a can­cer to grow in the present, and whether or not some­one de­serves fi­nan­cial aid?

Well, we do know the In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Can­cer — a re­spected part of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion — con­cluded peo­ple who worked in the rub­ber man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try have el­e­vated rates of leukemia, lym­phoma and can­cers of the uri­nary tract, blad­der, lung and stom­ach.

We know what’s hap­pened lo­cally, not only anec­do­tally from re­tired work­ers who’ve tracked the can­cer deaths of for­mer col­leagues but from the United Steel­work­ers union, which in­ves­ti­gated the ill­nesses of for­mer mem­bers.

We also know the Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board has the power to take a sec­ond look at claims. It did this when it re­viewed the health prob­lems of for­mer Gen­eral Elec­tric em­ploy­ees in Peter­bor­ough and de­cided to com­pen­sate many who had pre­vi­ously been de­nied help.

It’s un­con­scionable that Work­place Safety In­sur­ance Board of­fi­cials are so tight-lipped about this mat­ter. Eliz­a­beth Wit­mer has lived in this com­mu­nity, knows it in­ti­mately and served it hon­ourably for years as a mem­ber of the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture and cab­i­net min­is­ter. We sin­cerely wish she would pub­licly ad­dress the re­tired work­ers’ con­cerns. Many of those seek­ing help likely helped elect her.

The board needn’t do a 180-de­gree turn overnight. We would, how­ever, urge it to as­sign one per­son to in­ves­ti­gate for three months the ail­ments and con­cerns of lo­cal re­tired rub­ber work­ers, as well as how the bu­reau­cracy has treated them. Then fol­low the ev­i­dence. The WSIB has the man­date, ex­per­tise and re­sources to do this. And Peter­bor­ough pro­vides the prece­dent to jus­tify this re­view.

On­tario Premier Doug Ford prom­ises to de­liver a new “Govern­ment for the Peo­ple.” Who are “the peo­ple” if not this re­gion’s re­tired rub­ber work­ers?

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