Rub­ber work­ers should be al­lowed to sue, min­ers’ ad­vo­cate says

Class ac­tion law­suits are off-lim­its for sick or dy­ing work­ers in On­tario

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - GREG MERCER

KITCH­ENER — Sick rub­ber work­ers or their sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies should have the right to sue their for­mer em­ploy­ers, says the daugh­ter of a north­ern On­tario miner who has fought for years to help ail­ing work­ers in that sec­tor.

Since the orig­i­nal Work­men’s Com­pen­sa­tion Act was cre­ated in 1914, On­tar­i­ans haven’t been al­lowed to join class ac­tion law­suits in cases where they be­lieve their ill­ness is linked to work­place ex­po­sures.

Their only op­tion is to pur­sue com­pen­sa­tion through the Work­place Safety and In­sur­ance Board (WSIB).

Be­tween 2002 and 2017, more than 400 for­mer em­ploy­ees of Kitch­ener rub­ber com­pa­nies such as B.F. Goodrich, Uniroyal and Do­min­ion Tire did just that, fil­ing WSIB claims for can­cer and lung dis­eases.

They blamed car­cino­gens, as­bestos and other harm­ful chem­i­cals used in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

Only 15 per cent of their claims were ac­cepted by the WSIB.

For Jan­ice Martell, whose fa­ther Jim Hobbs worked in nickel and ura­nium mines around El­liot Lake, that’s proof the sys­tem isn’t work­ing.

“I ab­so­lutely think these com­pa­nies have an obli­ga­tion to these work­ers. But they’re pro­tected by the WSIB,” said Martell, who has fought to bring oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease cases out into the open.

Her fa­ther strug­gled with Parkin­son’s dis­ease un­til his death in 2017.

Martell and many oth­ers link his ill­ness to a pol­icy that re­quired min­ers in­hale finely ground alu­minum dust, known as McIn­tyre Pow­der, prior to

their shifts as a pre­ven­tive mea­sure against sil­i­co­sis.

Hobbs filed for com­pen­sa­tion through the WSIB, but with­drew his claim in frus­tra­tion.

Martell be­gan doc­u­ment­ing health prob­lems among hun­dreds of other min­ers and pushed for changes at the WSIB.

Martell cre­ated the McIn­tyre Pow­der Project, ex­pos­ing how thou­sands of On­tario min­ers were es­sen­tially ex­per­i­mented on by com­pa­nies look­ing to slash com­pen­sa­tion costs.

Her work caused the WSIB to end a pol­icy that made it im­pos­si­ble for min­ers ex­posed to alu­minum dust to make claims for neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders.

She ar­gues the WSIB sys­tem pe­nal­izes good com­pa­nies while pro­tect­ing the ones whose neg­li­gence is con­tribut­ing to oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease.

“The good em­ploy­ers who aren’t ex­pos­ing their work­ers to dan­ger­ous tox­ins, they’re sub­si­diz­ing the em­ploy­ers who are do­ing what­ever they want. And there doesn’t seem to be any con­se­quences,” Martell said.

In the U.S., rub­ber work­ers have joined class ac­tion suits and suc­cess­fully sued the same com­pa­nies that once em­ployed thou­sands in Kitch­ener.

Work­ers in both coun­tries were ex­posed to the same car­cino­gens, labour ac­tivists point out, but in Canada those em­ploy­ees can’t pur­sue com­pen­sa­tion through the courts.

That right to join class ac­tion suits is among the changes be­ing pushed for by the Steel­work­ers Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Ac­tive Re­tirees (SOAR) Chap­ter 80, a group of for­mer rub­ber work­ers. They ar­gue work­ers are left with a sys­tem that has failed them.

“We per­son­ally know of work­ers, wid­ows, and wid­ow­ers who have and con­tinue to suf­fer ill­nesses and re­sult­ing poverty that in all like­li­hood are at­trib­ut­able to their work­places, or the work­places of their spouses, but whose claims were de­nied by WCB or WSIB,” reads a let­ter the group sent to WSIB chair El­iz­abeth Wit­mer.

Martell ar­gues all work­ers who strug­gle with oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease have a lot in com­mon. None are well served by a sys­tem that has a poor track record of pe­nal­iz­ing com­pa­nies or com­pen­sat­ing em­ploy­ees, she said.

“Those rub­ber work­ers in Kitch­ener-Water­loo are ex­pos­ing the prob­lems in the sys­tem,” she said. “They want to be ac­knowl­edged and val­i­dated for what they went through.”

She urges rub­ber work­ers to keep fil­ing claims, doc­u­ment­ing their health prob­lems and telling their sto­ries un­til things change.

Martell be­lieves the true cost of oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease is be­ing borne by On­tario’s health care, wel­fare and dis­abil­ity sys­tem. That’s un­ac­cept­able, she said.

“I’m not go­ing to stop un­til the work­place com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem is com­pletely over­hauled,” she said. “This is an is­sue of hu­man rights.”

Jim Hobbs and daugh­ter Jan­ice Martell. He strug­gled with Parkin­son’s dis­ease un­til his death in 2017.

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