In Ontario, as elsewhere in Canada, more workers die from occupational illness than workplace injuries. In 2017, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) allowed 175 occupational disease fatality claims, with mesothelioma, lung and bronchial cancers and asbestosis heading the list of diseases. The underreporting of cancer deaths was highlighted again most recently in the study Work-Related Deaths in Canada led by Steven Bittle. Existing official data based on workers’ compensation boards’ accepted claims significantly underestimates the true numbers of workplace fatalities, with unrecognized occupational disease the main reason.
Systemic obstacles to disease recognition
The many challenges in linking work environment with cancer include the long latency periods between exposure to toxic hazards at work and cancer diagnosis (which may result in in medical professionals and workers not making the connection). Even when able to painstakingly gather the evidence to file a claim and meet the burden of proof required by the WSIB (notwithstanding a 2016 Supreme Court ruling on causation and scientific certainty), the struggle to have a workers’ compensation disease claim recognized is often long and onerous. Injured workers and their families across the province from Sarnia’s Chemical Valley to Sudbury mines, from Peterborough’s GE manufacturing facility to Kitcheners’ rubber tire plants, can attest to the toll fighting for fair compensation takes on their health and finances.
“WSIB designed in an era long before occupational disease was understood”
Media coverage of injured worker and allies’ advocacy to address the high denial rate has given impetus to Board and government action, including WSIB reviews of disallowed or new claims for GE Peterborough and Kitchener-Waterloo injured workers. The Ministry of Labour January 2019 announcement of a review of work-related cancers , to be led by the renowned Dr Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC), has been widely welcomed. As with a previously announced review, it has a mandate to look at how occupational cancer claims are evaluated by the WSIB, taking into account best practices and the most up-to-date scientific evidence, including the effects of exposure to multiple substances in a workplace.
This review has also been asked how scientific evidence on occupational cancer should guide the Ministry in developing legislative policy. As the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) has noted, the OCRC has aready provided some of the answers in their 2017 Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario report. Among the many policy recommendations from the report, the authors proposed expanding the Toxic Reductions Act to specifically address worker exposure, the number of substances covered under the Act and to provide support for workplaces through a government-funded institution like Massachussett’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute. The government’s Bill 66, Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, introduced last December, would repeal the Toxic Reductions Act …
Assistance with medical evidence for workers
Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) opened a satellite office in Peterborough last September to help meet workers’ needs for medical evidence of work-relatedness.
The newly announced Ontario Rubber Workers Project, a collaboration between OHCOW, Office of the Worker Adviser, USW and their retirees group SOAR, will investigate the cancer clusters in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, and help workers who are filing claims or who have filed claims in the past, with medical evidence to determine if their diseases are work-related.
Occupational Disease Panel Electronic Library (reports issued 1987-1996 by the Industrial Disease Standards Panel, renamed ODP, established by the Ontario Legislature to investigate and identify diseases related to work)