[Dec. 12 update: In response to The Record’s series, WSIB Chair orders review of hundreds of denied claims]. Once the booming Rubber Capital of Canada, Kitchener’s plants employed thousands. While many of those plants have long closed, former workers and their families still “struggle with a legacy of illness, death and poverty.” In his two-part series on “Rubber Town” (Waterloo Region Record Nov. 24 and Dec. 3), reporter Greg Mercer explores the impact of workers’ occupational exposure to carcinogens and other hazards of the rubber industry. Some workers, given the long latency period, are only now experiencing symptoms of diseases from jobs held decades ago. Many others are believed to have died early deaths. BF Goodrich retiree Ted Hickey, who has been collecting co-workers’ obituaries for more than 20 years, can point to such cases involving brain tumours, bowel and bladder cancers.
Links between working in the rubber manufacturing industry and other cancers, asbestosis and respiratory diseases have been established through scientific, not only anecdotal, evidence. An International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2012 study on carcinogenic risks in humans found higher rates of leukemia, lymphoma, cancers of the urinary tract, bladder, lung and stomach.
Workers question when the companies knew of the toxicity of materials to which they were being exposed. Before Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1978, rubber companies were not legally obliged to inform their employees of possible exposure to such hazards. For many, their first warning came through the booklet A Rubber Worker’s Guide to Occupational Health, published in the early 1980s by Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) and widely distributed by the rubber workers’ union – despite Uniroyal’s efforts to prevent its release.
Retirees’ long fight for compensation
While workers for the U.S. parent companies have joined nationwide class-action lawsuits for hazardous exposure, Ontario’s rubber workers should expect to receive justice under Ontario’s workers’ compensation system. However, as the reporter documents using Workplace Safety and Insurance (WSIB) claims denial statistics and injured workers’ own experiences, they all too often fare endure a long fight for compensation. Of 404 compensation claims by former rubber plant workers filed between 2002 and 2017 for a variety of illness, 85% were denied – or deemed ‘abandoned’, often because the worker couldn’t provide acceptable records.
Despite the body of scientific evidence, as University of Waterloo professor and occupational health scientist Jim Brophy notes, workers are often on their own to prove the link to their old job as the average family doctor is likely to be unaware of what went on in the rubber plants. Critics point also to the Board’s greater emphasis in recent years on ‘pre-existing condition’ as reason to deny costly cancer claims. Despite WSIB assets of $36 billion, according to its 2017 financial statement, compensation benefit payouts to injured workers have dropped from approximately $4.8 billion in 2010 to $2.3 billion in 2017… Speaking of the WSIB’s increasingly restrictive process, Aidan Macdonald, community legal worker with Injured Workers’ Community Legal Clinic, sees many former rubber industry employees being forced onto social assistance and into poverty, spending retirement years struggling to pay bills.