Workers with cancer in relentless effort to prove their work caused it

Sue James

CALL IT A “KOJAK MOMENT.” Ask the the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA) “Who loves ya, baby” and the answer will be instant and obvious: we do.

It’s all personal for them. They are not bureaucrats. The reforms they want are no abstract exercise. No one is more on their side than they are.

They are the ones with skin in the game They are the ones who have lost loved ones to workplace cancers. The ones who won’t stop until they’ve got answers—answers to all the questions the occupational health and safety establishment cannot or will not give them.

The newly-formed advocacy group is made up of workers battling workplace cancers, their families and the families of workers who lost their battles. They are determined to fight the battles bureaucrats can’t or won’t.

‘We’re not going away’

Sara Sharpe knows it will be a long haul. It took her six-and-a-half years to win a workplace cancer claim on behalf of her husband, a 42-year veteran of General Electric Peterborough.

She says the whole occupational health and safety system urgently needs change. The ODRA will do all it can to make that happen.

“We’re here as a group to say, we’re not going away,” she says.

Workplace hazards cause an estimated 3,000 cancer cases in Ontario every year.But the province is only compensating a tiny fraction of cancers caused by workplace exposures, according to a recent Ontario Ministry of Labour report led by Occupational Cancer Research Centre director Paul Demers.

The Demers study found that the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WISB) only accepts 2.9 cases of claims for occupational cancer per 100,000 workers — a significantly lower rate than other countries. In Germany, for example, the acceptance rate for workplace cancer claims is 15.1 per 100,000 workers—more than five times higher.

The 2019 Demers report included 11 recommendations to address that. But ODRA, says little has changed since.

Complete overhaul needed

ODRA is now calling on the Ontario government to overhaul its approach to recognizing and preventing workplace exposures — including expanding the list of cancers considered “presumptively” work-related, which would make it easier for workers to win compensation.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that workers’ compensation boards cannot demand definitive proof that an illness is work-related, especially since existing scientific research on occupational disease is sometimes inconclusive.

Where evidence is evenly weighted, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is also required to give workers the benefit of the doubt.

But many victims and their families believe that is not happening.

“The bar is so high for absolute proof,” said Sue James, who worked at GE Peterborough for three decades, as did her father. He died with a tumour in his lung and four on his spine.

The Ontario labour ministry says occupational disease “has been identified as an area of focus” for government, and a strategy is under development to better identify and prevent such illnesses.

But to James, much of the work to gather evidence of historic exposures has fallen on the shoulders of grieving families.

“It’s sad that historically, these people’s stories have been ignored,” she said.“We want to stop this whole cycle.”

ODRA members are now compiling research on exposures in two lesser known workplace cancer clusters: the now-defunct Neelon Casting brake-parts manufacturer in Sudbury, and Pebra (now Ventra Plastics) in Peterborough.

$3B for employers; nothing for workers

Meanwhile, the Ontario government has proposed legislation to allow the WSIB to return up to $3 billion in “surplus funds” to employers—not injured or sick workers.

“How can this be allowed to happen when my husband’s claim and others like his go unresolved?” said Jean Simpson, whose husband Bud worked for a fibreglass plant in Sarnia. He died in 1997 after over 100 radiation treatments, losing all his teeth, and being fed through a feeding tube. All because he simply went to work every day.

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