Blog: Toxic Exposures and the Workplace

Blog post by Anne Rochon Ford, Project Co-Lead, Nail Salon Workers Project and Fe de Leon, Researcher and Paralegal, CELA

Environment and health NGOs and labour unions have long pointed to the lack of attention the federal government accords workplace exposures in its assessments and management of toxic chemicals. However, we are presently at a unique crossroads where government may finally be prepared to listen.

Firstly, a recent consultation document issued by the Chemicals Management Plan (“Consulting on an integrated strategy for the protection of Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals”) marks a change in the program’s interest in workplace settings. Secondly, following the recent federal election, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change have both been mandated to “better protect people and the environment from toxins and other pollution, including by strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999”.

With this in mind, CELA organized a meeting to hear what workers in occupations characterized by high exposure to hazardous chemicals would want government to hear about their workplaces and the hazards they face. We met with front-line workers from a plastics factory, a firefighter, a nail salon technician, and a border services officer.

Participants acknowledged that they were unaware of the federal government’s role in regulating chemicals and added that on-the-job training about the chemicals they work with is almost non-existent.

Common challenges raised during our discussions included:

• Lack of information on what chemicals are being used, released or stored and what signs to look out for in cases of over-exposure;

• Absence of disclosure requirements, labelling information and misinformation on use of consumer products;

• False information about apparent safety (e.g. products labelled “toxic-free” when they were not); and for some workers, there was expression of fear of reprisal if inquiries or issues were raised regarding safety, even being reminded that they were replaceable.

Fears and worries about cancer often dominated the discussion, with almost all the participants noting an alarming number of co-workers who had been diagnosed with or died from different cancers and at younger and younger ages.

Existing compensation programs intended to support injured workers may be contributing to the problems facing workers. Occupational health clinics and legal clinics such as IAVGO continue to advocate for changes to these programs in support of injured workers. However, changes to the system continue to be needed to support workers. For example, workers express feelings of discouragement with filing compensation claims. One worker noted that when you file a claim, “management brings in their company lawyers, might write you up for insubordination and watch you like a hawk… basically do everything they can to discourage you from continuing”.

We also heard that workers often make compensation claims in isolation. “It’s all very individual”, said one. “Even as a union steward, it’s hard to know what people are doing around their illness. People don’t come forward and tell us what they are dealing with.”

In interactions with the health care system, when asked whether family doctors ask where they work, the answer was uniformly “no”.

A few workers commented that it was important for injured workers to be in touch with each other when they have health concerns that may be related to their work, and workers need to be encouraged to document the problems that are developing over time.

We asked participants what they would say to the federal government.

“I would like to see people in power start caring [about our working conditions], because now they don’t really care.”

There were strong feelings that the federal government needs to force industry to be accountable to clean up their workplaces and that information needs to be available about what chemicals exist on all work sites.

Several references were made to how long-time workers are developing cancers that are known to have long latency periods and that some of these may have initially started developing on the job.

“People don’t need to hear that it’s because they’re old or because they smoked, or because they’re overweight. This is not helpful.”

Participants also noted that little attention is paid to looking at the combined effects of chemicals or mixtures of chemicals. No one in these work settings is exposed to just one problematic chemical, and yet they worry that this is all they are assessing.

The plastics workers cited their local Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) office for helping to mount a scientific case for showing the links between their chemical exposures and cancer development. The contributions of local occupational hygienists, through research they conducted, help to overturn 36% of recently denied WSIB claims.

Based on what we heard from this group of workers, we issue a challenge to the federal government involved in the regulation of chemicals to invite workers and their representatives to the table in the new era of chemicals regulation, to promote workplace safety with mandatory disclosure and labelling requirements of hazardous chemicals, and to require preventative approaches to better protect workers from toxic exposures. The review of CEPA offers an opportunity to address these challenges directly. We can no longer rely on communicating risk alone when protection from hazard should be the priority.