Workers’ fears confirmed years too late for too many


Roger Fowler writes poems to remember and honour his many friends and former GE workers who have died of cancer.

THE BOSS LIED TO THEM FOR YEARS AND THEY KNEW IT. They knew their work was making them sick. They knew a study by the boss that said it wasn’t was bogus. Now the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) says the workers were right all along.

The WSIB is re-examining more than 250 rejected claims, from former employees of Peterborough’s troubled General Electric plant, that date back to 2004

Between 2004 and 2016, GE workers submitted some 660 compensation claims to the WSIB. Results were deeply disappointing. The majority of the claims were either thrown out, or were disallowed, due to an alleged lack of evidence.

The WSIB re-examination brought big changes. By December 2017 the board had approved 30 of 47 claims it had once rejected—a 64% reversal rate.

GE plant workers had been pressing for a re-examination of their claims for at least 15 years. The 2017 board decision to finally re-examine the claims came after health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo published a comprehensive report which found that GE Peterborough workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals in their workplace between 1945 and 2000—levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe.

The workers always thought the GE study was a scam. “We don’t need a genius to figure out all this,” Marilyn Harding, a former GE worker and a survivor of breast and bladder cancer, said. “Just look at the body count we have.”

Harding lost her husband, Jerry, to cancer in 2010. Sue James, a worker with over 30 years in the plant, helped her compile a list in 2016 of all of the workers who died due to cancer. It ran to over 200 names.

‘We’ll all be bloody dead by the time they do anything’

The reopening of the claims is a step forward. But there’s still a lot to put right after decades of exposure to toxic substances for thousands of workers, many of whom are ageing and sick, and do not have a lot of time left.

Roger Fowler, a 71-year-old former GE worker and cancer survivor, told the Peterborough Examiner in September 2017 that 60 GE workers had died in the previous six months. “We’ll all be bloody dead by the time they do anything,” he added.

Diane Carl is one of those Roger is talking about. Diane died three months before the WSIB decided to reopen her claim that the cancer that killed her husband Art was work-related.

The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) conducts research to determine whether illnesses are work-related. It has complained that funding from the provincial government is insufficient to allow the organization to support 104 new cases related to the GE plant.

Jim Dufresne, a 71-year-old who survived prostate cancer, summed up the anger among workers towards the government due to the delay of justice. “We have showed you what we did for a living. Now show us what you do, government.”

Union support

The Unifor union has supported the retirees efforts. The union commissioned occupational health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo to gather evidence of the workers’ illnesses and health problems. And the union hired a specialist to refute the GE report from 2001.

Some activists are pushing for more.

They don't trust the WSIB to do a full and fair review. They point out it was the WSIB that rejected the workers' claims in the first place.  They want to see a policy of "presumptive entitlement" implemented. Presumptive entitlement would mean that anyone employed at the GE facility between 1945 and 2000 who develops cancer would be automatically entitled to compensation based on the unchallenged presumption that their illness came from working there.

“To be denied (WSIB compensation) and then make them go through another hoop is unfathomable,” Marion Burton, a campaigner for presumptive entitlement, stated.

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