“Lethal legacy: Peterborough’s toxic past” / Sara Mojtehedzadeh (Toronto Star, Dec. 17, 2016)
This in-depth study provides a disturbing look at the aftermath of General Electric (GE) Peterborough plant workers’ exposure to a “toxic soup” of human carcinogens – and at barriers still facing claimants with occupational diseases (including brain, bowel and lung cancers) for compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The investigative report is based on an analysis of government inspection records and internal documents from the mid-1940s onwards, GE Joint Health & Safety Committee (JHSC) reports, archives of local news and interviews with retired workers and occupational health experts.
Over the decades those Ministry and JHSC reports document unsafe working conditions, inadequate personal protective equipment and multiple exposures to a mix of substances in use, including asbestos, lead, biphenyls, mercury, beryllium and uranium – sometimes at levels hundreds of times the levels now considered safe. Physician Noel Kerin, who reviewed cases of GE workers with cancer for the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in 2004, reported being stunned by the “unbelievable” scale and complexity of past exposures described by those he interviewed.
Whose evidence matters?
In 2005 Kerin told the city’s health unit he believed at least half of the illnesses he saw were work-related and warned there could be many more (given the long latency period for such diseases). In contrast, a 2002 GE-commissioned analysis on mortality and follow-up study, conducted by the company’s own industrial hygienist, reported that while there were significantly higher rates of some types of cancer in comparison to rates among the general population, when factors such as age and smoking were taken into account these excesses disappeared. Although the methodology and conclusions of the GE study have been challenged, only 280 of the 660 occupational disease claims made to the WSIB by GE Peterborough workers over the last 10 years have been accepted, with the remainder “denied, abandoned or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence”. Workers believe they are being held to an unrealistic standard of proof.
Their situation highlights ongoing concerns with how occupational diseases are tracked, prevented and compensated in Ontario. When doctors do not take work histories, warning signs of occupational cancers can be missed and workers, if unaware their disease may be work-related, do not file claims. When they do, workers already burdened with illness and grief must contend with employers, Board bureaucracy and complex science. Experts have questioned compensation boards’ narrow understanding of occupational disease and their decisionmaking in those claims (far more costly for the WSIB than other types of injuries).
“There’s a systemic barrier to actually looking at what’s happening to these blue-collar workers behind factory walls,” says Dr. Jim Brophy, an expert in occupational disease…If compensation boards recognize these cases then the onus is on the government to go do something about them. We’re caught in this vicious cycle.”
- Nyznik, Jessica. 2015 Sep. 17. “Group Holds Public Meeting to Fight Back Against Rejected WSIB Claims by Ill General Electric Workers.” Peterborough Examiner
- Luckhardt, Natasha. 2014. “Go to Work on Monday One More Time”: An Analysis of the Compensation Process for Occupational Disease at General Electric in Peterborough. Hamilton: McMaster University (thesis)
- Del Bianco, Ann & Paul A. Demers. 2013 Aug. 8. “Trends in Compensation for Deaths from Occupational Cancer in Canada: A Descriptive Study.” CMAJ Open
- Padungpat, Patarapa & Occupational and Environmental Health Coalition, Peterborough. 2010. Memoir of an Environmental Health Activist – Why Improved Occupational Health & Safety Policy Failed to Make a Difference in Small-town Ontario. Peterborough:Trent Centre for Community-Based Education.
- Ison, Terence. G. 2008. “Statistical Significance and the Distraction of Scientific Proof.” Canadian Bar Review 87: 119-159