Ontario shouldn’t ignore retired rubber workers
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?