Working conditions at General Electric’s Peterborough factory between 1945 and 2000 played a significant role in an “epidemic” of work-related illnesses among employees and retirees, according to a comprehensive study of chemical exposures at the plant.
The 173-page report, to be released Thursday, confirms what the community has been saying for years and will be used to support occupational disease claims previously denied by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, say the workers and Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, which sponsored the report.
“For many years, workers and their family members were forced to provide proof as to their working conditions, only to be told this is anecdotal,” said Sue James, whose father Gord worked at the plant for 30 years and died of lung and spinal cancer, diseases his family believes were caused by his exposure to workplace chemicals.
“This report is a true depiction of the working conditions of the GE plant from its very beginnings until approximately 2000, when safety measures were finally being mandated,” said James, who was also employed by the company for 30 years and is among 11 retirees who worked as advisers on the report.
“It honours and recognizes the struggles and grief of a working community and gives validation to an historic past,” she added.
Plant workers, who built everything from household appliances to diesel locomotive engines and fuel cells for nuclear reactors, were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals, including at least 40 known or suspected to cause cancer, at levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe, the report says.
Once Peterborough’s largest employer, General Electric is now a much smaller operation which workers say is spotless today. However, for many years that was not true, the report says.
In the past, workers routinely handled toxic substances with their bare hands and were offered little in the way of protective gear. Since they were paid by the piece, instead of by the hour until the late 1980s, there was an incentive to cut corners, the report says.
A company spokesman previously told the Star GE always “adhered to the health and safety practices that were appropriate for the time and enhanced those practices as scientific research and best practices in industrial health and safety emerged.”
The report’s advisory committee of retired GE employees was led by health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo. Together they interviewed more than 75 former workers to document working conditions and production processes at the plant.
“This could never have happened without these retirees,” said Bob DeMatteo, an occupational disease researcher and former director of health and safety for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
“They provided their experiences and description of how production took place at GE from 1945 until 2000 and confirmed it through interviews with other former workers who also helped to fill in the gaps,” he said.
The first-hand recollections are supported by a data base of labour ministry inspection reports, joint health and safety committee minutes, company memos, industrial hygiene literature and other documents, compiled by the union.
It confirms and catalogues workers’ daily exposure to highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in every area of the plant dating back more than 70 years, DeMatteo said.
According to the study, about 500 lbs. of asbestos were used daily without respiratory protection or proper exhaust ventilation despite company reports showing managers knew the harmful effects of the substance as early as the 1920s and ’30s. Over the years, the company even sold asbestos to workers and the community for pennies a pound to insulate their homes, the report says.
Until the early 1980s, workers used about 40,000 lbs. of lead a week in the production of PVC pellets. Workers also experienced daily exposure to solvents, welding fumes, epoxy resins, PCBs, beryllium and uranium, the report notes.
After working for decades in these conditions, many former employees have become ill from often horrific and sometimes terminal diseases, including brain, bowel and lung cancer, the report says. Hundreds have filed compensation claims.
Under Ontario’s worker compensation system, employees give up their right to sue their employer in exchange for the ability to claim benefits when they are injured or fall ill because of work.
A Star investigation last fall revealed decades worth of government reports on the Peterborough plant that repeatedly warned of poor housekeeping, shoddy ventilation and lack of personal protective equipment amid massive use of materials now known to be carcinogenic.
A 2002 GE-commissioned mortality study found male employees were up to 57 per cent more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population and female workers up to 129 per cent more likely.
But when the study controlled for “other factors” such as age and smoking in a followup study, there was “no statistically significant increase in cancer at the Peterborough facility,” GE previously told the Star.
The plant has employed tens of thousands of workers over its 125-year history in Peterborough, and their health and safety has always been the company’s “No. 1 priority,” GE has said.
Following the Star’s investigation, the provincial labour ministry announced it would set up a dedicated occupational disease response team by the end of 2017 to boost prevention of chemical exposures and help sick workers file compensation claims.
Since 2004, when a government-funded health clinic assessed GE workers for occupational disease, workers have filed 660 compensation claims to the WSIB. Some 280 have been accepted, but more than half have been withdrawn, abandoned or rejected because of apparently insufficient evidence that the conditions were work related.
The new report is an effort to provide that evidence for GE workers and others impacted by workplaces with similar histories across Ontario, said Unifor national representative Joel Carr.
“This report provides a powerful narrative of what the workers, and the community, already know to be true,” he said.
Former GE employee Roger Fowler, 71, developed colorectal cancer, a result, he believes, of working for more than 22 years under asbestos-wrapped pipes that shed fibres of toxic snow. Although he beat the cancer, he continues to wrap the football-sized hernias pressing on his bladder, the result of seemingly endless surgeries.
“It’s very emotional,” he said Wednesday, choking back tears on the eve of the report’s release.
“I’m just hoping this will get us recognized and accepted — people who have been denied compensation because they say there was no exposure,” said Fowler, who also worked on the report and writes poetry to deal with the stress of his poor health.
“With this report, we’ve proven there was exposure to asbestos and all the other chemicals in every building in GE,” he said. “It’s not just for me, but for all the people who have been denied.”
Source : TheStar