Help on the way for rubber workers
Funding challenges present problems for organization trying to assist with WSIB claims
— 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.”
Workers leave the Uniroyal Goodrich plant on Goodrich Drive in Kitchener in September 1989. Michelin closed the plant in 2006.