Help on the way for rub­ber work­ers

Fund­ing chal­lenges present prob­lems for or­ga­ni­za­tion try­ing to as­sist with WSIB claims

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - GREG MERCER

— A spe­cial­ized team of oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease ex­perts are be­ing as­sem­bled to help for­mer rub­ber work­ers file for gov­ern­ment com­pen­sa­tion for cancer and other ill­nesses.

The Oc­cu­pa­tional Health Clin­ics for On­tario Work­ers (OHCOW), a provin­cially funded not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, is cre­at­ing a spe­cial pro­ject to deal with what’s be­lieved to be a clus­ter of work-re­lated dis­eases in Kitch­ener tied to the rub­ber in­dus­try.

That in­cludes the cre­ation of a new 1-800 num­ber and web­site ded­i­cated to help­ing rub­ber work­ers pur­sue com­pen­sa­tion through On­tario’s Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board (WSIB), and an open house in Kitch­ener planned for March 28-29.

The ac­tion comes af­ter a Record in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the toxic legacy of Kitch­ener’s rub­ber man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, work that prompted the WSIB to launch a for­mal re­view of more than 300 rub­ber work­ers’ pre­vi­ously de­nied claims.

At the open house, med­i­cal staff will be on hand to help peo­ple file new claims, re­ly­ing on work records and ex­po­sure his­tory to car­cino­gens such as ben­zene, as­bestos and car­bon black.

A doc­tor will also be con­tracted by OHCOW to pro­duce re­ports on whether or not a worker’s health con­di­tion can be linked to a job they may have left years ago — some­thing that can help im­prove their chances of get­ting a claim ap­proved.

“Here we have sev­eral plants where we know there were ex­po­sures to car­cino­gens, and this is our best op­por­tu­nity to get as many peo­ple as we can to come for­ward,” ex­plained Dave Wilken, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of OHCOW.

“Where there’s a clus­ter of dis­ease like this one ... we can open files and get health his­to­ries on the spot.”

It’s not only a chance for sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies of work­ers who have passed away to seek com­pen­sa­tion. In cases where for­mer rub­ber em­ploy­ees are still alive, the WSIB can help them pay for things like pre­scrip­tions and other med­i­cal care, Wilken said.

But the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fund­ing chal­lenges mean OHCOW doesn’t know what it can com­mit to a spe­cial fo­cus on rub­ber work­ers be­yond April. In or­der to re­spond to the clus­ter of claims com­ing out of Kitch­ener,

work­ers in other parts of the prov­ince will have to wait longer for their cases to be dealt with, he said.

That’s un­ac­cept­able, says Kitch­ener Cen­tre MPP Laura Mae Lindo. Oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease is not a new prob­lem, and OHCOW needs more staff and fund­ing to deal with these cases more ef­fi­ciently.

“The gov­ern­ment knows what these chal­lenges are, be­cause we’ve been here be­fore,” she said. “We don’t have years to wait, this has to hap­pen now. But you can’t do that un­less you ded­i­cate re­sources to fix­ing the prob­lem.”

Lindo ar­gues the process to re­view the more than 300 re­jected rub­ber work­ers’ claims needs to be trans­par­ent. But it can’t stop there — new claims need to be pro­cessed more quickly than they have in the past, and OHCOW needs to have the staff to do the job.

“You have to do more than just say we’re go­ing to re­view claims. The gov­ern­ment has to step up and re­source this. The real ques­tion for me is the po­lit­i­cal will,” Lindo said.

Too many rub­ber work­ers or their sur­viv­ing spouses have been dis­cour­aged by an overly bu­reau­cratic sys­tem that has taken years to process com­pen­sa­tion claims — and more often than not ends in the claims be­ing de­clined, she said. She en­cour­ages work­ers to con­tact her of­fice to help them nav­i­gate the WSIB process.

“This gov­ern­ment talks about job cre­ation. But then we have sto­ries like this, and they’re not will­ing to re­source the prob­lem so these work­ers who helped build this city don’t suf­fer any longer,” Lindo said.

“They have to do bet­ter. These work­ers de­serve bet­ter.”

OHCOW, cre­ated by the On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of Labour and funded through the On­tario Min­istry of Labour, has a net­work of clin­ics around the prov­ince. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has a team of nurses, oc­cu­pa­tional hy­gien­ists, er­gonomists and re­searchers that tries to of­fer more ef­fec­tive, and free, di­ag­no­sis of work-re­lated health prob­lems.

The not-for-profit has long lob­bied for a provincewide ‘vir­tual clinic’ focused ex­clu­sively on oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease, but with­out enough fund­ing it has to stretch ex­ist­ing re­sources.

“We’re run­ning right at the edge,” Wilken said.

It’s still early in the process for OHCOW’s spe­cial pro­ject for rub­ber work­ers, and de­tails on a lo­ca­tion for the open house, the 1-800 num­ber, web­site or even hopes for a satel­lite of­fice in Kitch­ener have yet to be sorted out.

Marty War­ren, a for­mer tire builder at BF Goodrich who’s now di­rec­tor of the On­tario and At­lantic Canada dis­trict for the United Steel­work­ers union, is meet­ing with WSIB pres­i­dent Tom Tea­hen next week to press the is­sue.

A lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion of re­tired rub­ber work­ers, mean­while, says it hopes many of the re­jected claims be­ing re­viewed by the WSIB will be over­turned. It ar­gues the WSIB sys­tem needs to be re­vamped, with more thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion of claims and a more com­pre­hen­sive ap­peal process.

Some cases in­volv­ing work­ers who died of cancer took more than a decade to work their way through the WSIB claim and ap­peal sys­tem.

“I think we should get quicker re­sults,” said Gord Ass­man, pres­i­dent of the Steel­work­ers Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Ac­tive Re­tirees (SOAR) Chap­ter 80.

“Peo­ple need an­swers, and when they come that slow, it’s frus­trat­ing for ev­ery­body.”

It’s ex­pected the WSIB re­view panel will be look­ing at a land­mark re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Cancer, up­dated in 2012 af­ter many lo­cal cancer cases were al­ready re­jected. That study drew alarm­ing links be­tween work in the rub­ber man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and el­e­vated cases of blad­der cancer, stom­ach cancer, lym­phoma, lung dis­ease and other ill­ness.

Wilken hopes the open house and new at­ten­tion on rub­ber work­ers’ health will cause more peo­ple who may have suf­fered with a workre­lated ill­ness to let his group do an eval­u­a­tion of their case.

OHCOW was in­volved in an ini­tial in­take clinic back in 2002 that prompted hun­dreds of rub­ber work­ers to file claims. He knows there are oth­ers out there, and en­cour­ages them to come out.

“There will be many new cases of dis­ease that have oc­curred since that time,” Wilken said. “Hope­fully, this is a trig­ger for a peo­ple who had not known to look into this, and they will now come for­ward and look at their cases.”

Many of the cases OHCOW staff work on are those of de­ceased work­ers. Even if a sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­ber has lit­tle in the way of work records, the group can be­gin to build a pro­file based on names of co-work­ers and ex­po­sure records al­ready in their data­base.

“We just want to give them the sup­port in cases where there should be com­pen­sa­tion,” Wilken said. “We want to get the word out that we’re here and able to pro­vide this ser­vice for them.”

DWIGHT STORRING WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD FILE PHOTO

Work­ers leave the Uniroyal Goodrich plant on Goodrich Drive in Kitch­ener in Septem­ber 1989. Miche­lin closed the plant in 2006.

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