Rubber workers should be allowed to sue, miners’ advocate says
Class action lawsuits are off-limits for sick or dying workers in Ontario
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.