Sarnia workers faced massive asbestos levels, records show
Thursday, February 11, 1999
The Globe and Mail
Hundreds of former workers at a Sarnia factory, many of whom are now ill or dead from cancer, were exposed to asbestos levels more than 8,000 times higher than the amount now considered safe, according to Labour Ministry records.
Former workers at the factory, Holmes Insulations Ltd. and an associated foundry, have been contracting cancers and other ailments at levels that health experts describe as a huge occupational-health tragedy.
"People are calling it a world-class disaster," said Paul Edwards, a workers' compensation expert for the Canadian Auto Workers, the union that represents workers at the factory.
The company, which now exists under new owners and a different name, stopped using asbestos in 1974.
It usually takes several decades for cancers to develop because of exposure to the material. The level of asbestos at the factory is among the highest ever recorded in an industrial workplace.
The documents indicate that workers would regularly shovel asbestos into machines using pitchforks, an activity that would leave them enveloped in a dust cloud of the cancer-causing material.
"The man engaged in breaking the fibres was practically covered with the loose [asbestos] fibres," one government inspector wrote in 1972. "I would not be surprised if the man develops asbestosis before too long."
The workers are contracting asbestosis (a lung disease caused by breathing asbestos particles), mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lung lining), silicosis, lung cancer, kidney cancer and bladder cancer, among other ailments.
The ministry documents, obtained under freedom-of-information legislation, indicate that the lung-disease death rates observed among former workers exposed to asbestos are about six to seven times the death rate from these ailments among the general population.
The government was aware of problems at Holmes as early as 1958, just two years after it opened, but did almost nothing to clean up the workplace until the early 1970s, the records show.
Labour Ministry officials were unavailable for comment yesterday.
The factory used asbestos to manufacture blocks and pipe insulation. The foundry made engine blocks for vehicles.
The ministry documents indicate that workers were exposed to asbestos levels that were hundreds of times the ministry standards at the time.
Under provincial standards in the 1970s, no workplace was allowed to have more than two asbestos fibres in every cubic centimetre of air. (The current standard is 0.1 fibre per cubic centimetre.)
At Holmes, the number was 852.
"The figure of 852 is probably the highest asbestos-fibre concentration ever recorded," a ministry inspector wrote in 1973.
Of the 10 areas checked at the time, only two were deemed safe and some of the others were also hundreds of times the limit. "These figures can only be considered as alarming," wrote the inspector, H. M. Nelson.
Mr. Nelson wrote to superiors, urging the company to stop all work involving asbestos immediately, but the factory continued to operate for another year.
The CAW asked for the ministry records because of the high number of occupational-health cases arising at the workplace.
According to current figures from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the province has accepted 51 out of 54 claims for compensation resulting from employment at the site. That acceptance rate is considered high because the board usually takes a tough stance against workplace cancer claims.
Mr. Edwards said the union is working with about 150 former employees who are also sick and considering submitting claims.
Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, a provincially funded health and safety agency, is reviewing an additional 145 claims by former employees or their families, related to possible problems from the workplace.
There are no figures available on total employment at the site, but Mr. Edwards said about 300 to 400 people regularly worked there.