Poison powder gets the shaft


JANICE MARTELL FOUGHT AND FOUGHT AND FOUGHT—AND WON BIG. Workers made ill by breathing in McIntyre Powder will finally be taken seriously in two big ways.

First, they will be allowed to make claims for worker compensation. Second, the Ontario government will spend $1M on research that workers could turn around and use to support their claims for compensation.

Both wins are the direct result of years of effort put in by Janice Martell and the support she won for the McIntyre Powder Project she founded in 2015.

The project’s first big win came in August when the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) cancelled their policy of automatically denying workers’ claims related to aluminum dust and the development of neurological disorders.

Along with this, they commissioned an independent study by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre that will examine historical records, including the files of over 90,000 Ontario miners, to determine if there is a link to increased risk of brain damage.

The project’s second big win came on October 11 when the Ontario government announced it would spend $1 million to fund a review by the  Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) of the information collected from miners across the country who participate in their intake clinics.

According to the Ministry of Labour, the workers “could then use this information to make claims to the WSIB for potential compensation.”

Janice Martell is clearly elated: “I didn’t think it would happen quite as quickly as it has.”       

Forced to take the ‘cure’ that could kill

McIntyre Powder was supposed to keep miners safe. The powder’s producers claimed that breathing in the aluminum dust deeply before a shift would protect miners from developing silicosis of the lungs, also known as black lung disease, a disease for which miners could claim compensation. It was a lie.

Between 1943 and 1979, over 27,500 miners in Ontario alone were deliberately exposed to this dust.

Most miners had no idea what the powder contained. But even if they had know it was dangerous to their health it wouldn’t have mattered. They had no choice. They had to inhale it.

“There was absolutely no informed consent,” said Martell. “Some of them were locked in. One of the guys told me that they would put chains on the door so nobody could get in or out. It’s forcible confinement is what it is.”

When some miners did question the practice and didn’t want to inhale the dust, their questions were met with an ultimatum. “They were told ‘keep talking like that and you won’t be around here for very long’ or ‘You take this f---ing shit and if you don’t take it, there’s 400 guys outside the gate who will.’ It was very clear,” said Martell. “Do it or you’re going to lose your job.”

Something’s not quite right

Jim Hobbs was Janice’s father. He was a miner in Elliot Lake, Ontario. He fell victim to Parkinson’s Disease about 10 years after retiring. That’s when Janice became suspicious.

Her father had never spoken about what life was like in the mine. She had no idea about the practice of inhaling aluminum dust until another miner’s family spoke to her mother about the potential link.

“In hindsight, I remember him hacking up this blackish stuff, but when you’re a kid you don’t think to ask questions,” said Martell. By 2015 an adult Janice Martell had nothing but questions.

Janice is a past president of Local 604 of the Ontario Public Service Union (OPSEU). She knew how to organize. So the first thing she did was to set up the McIntyre Powder Project to get answers.

“I funded it because I wanted to not be muzzled or pushing someone else’s agenda,” she said.

It’s just deny, deny, deny

Janice began to talk to miners and to challenge the WSIB policy that automatically denied any claims for neurological disorders based on occupational aluminum exposure, such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

“It’s the only negative policy that they’ve ever developed in their hundred year existence that automatically denies a claim from the get go, saying there’s insufficient medical or scientific evidence,” Martell said.

“The WSIB is an insurance scheme so they’re deny, deny, deny when people apply.

If a thousand people apply, you deny all 1,000 of them and only 500 appeal, you’ve just cut your costs in half. And when there’s finally enough evidence that it’s a problem, the next thing they do is shrink benefits, like saying it’s only for people who were exposed for 5 years, or 10 years.”

Work on the McIntyre Powder Project led to her employment with the OHCOW. She set up intake clinics for former miners and their survivors.

Support from unions also began to pour in. The Steelworkers helped fund the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinics and OPSEU paid to transport the miners. Other unions and workers’ networks lent their support and their voices to the cause.

It all came together with the two big wins in August and October.

Jim Hobbs with his daughter Janice Martell

A final gift

Eight days before her father died this past July, Martell told him, “We’re going to change things for the next generation.” He looked at her and replied, “YOU will.” That’s when she realized he wouldn’t be there to see the fruits of their labours.

And what a bountiful harvest it’s becoming. What began as a search for justice for her dad has led to a search for justice for all the miners and their families.

We asked Martell if she believes that the work she’s doing will change the way the WSIB handles future cases of workplace injuries and diseases.

“Oh, that’s happening,” she replied. “I’m telling you that right now. It may take me twenty years but I’m changing that.”

Tenacity. It’s what has brought Janice Martell this far and it’s what will keep her going. She intends to find answers for the miners and their families; to bring long overdue redress to those who live with neurological diseases and to those who died from them; and, most of all, to change the entire system to better serve those who have made our country great – the workers.

Our bets are on her.

• McIntyre Powder Project

Mine workers who were exposed to aluminum powder, or their survivors, who would like to register with OHCOW can call 1-800-461-7120


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