Friday, December 23, 2016

Lethal Legacy - Part 2

In Part 1, I wrote about the lethal consequences for many who have worked at GE Peterborough. A toxic workplace that has resulted in crippling disease or death for many is not the kind of legacy these men and women anticipated.

To compound the tragedy of the situation, Ontario's Workplace Insurance and Safety Board has been strangely reluctant to find a relationship between that workplace and the diseases that are killing far too many former employees, accepting only 280 compensation claims from over 660 applications.

Today, I try to understand that reluctance, as well as look at a bill working its way through the Ontario legislature that will potentially make the workplace even more hazardous.

In exploring this issue, the role of the Ontario government must also be considered, given its apparent indifference to workplace health and safety:
A report produced for the WSIB in 2010 determined that the province had “no effective reporting or surveillance of occupational disease or exposures” and no central repository of data on the subject.
Six years later, that status quo remains.

The WSIB itself seems to share that indifference:
The WSIB has a registry for “unplanned exposure incidents,” but it is voluntary, does not record information about the severity of the exposure, does not collect medical information from workers or health-care providers and looks only at individual cases rather than populations at risk. There is no dedicated funding for the program. ... [and] the Ministry of Labour does not receive data from the registry.
Why this strange shared inertia between a government-appointed board and the government itself? Is it possible that the miasma of neoliberalism has infiltrated both? And if so, how can that be, given that the WISB directors themselves, as I pointed out in the previous post, come from diverse backgrounds?

Is there, in fact, an institutional bias at work here?
“There’s a systemic barrier to actually looking at what’s happening to these blue-collar workers behind factory walls,” says Dr. Jim Brophy, an expert in occupational disease whose research into breast cancer in the workplace won him an award from the American Public Health Association in 2013.

“If compensation boards recognize these cases then the onus is on the government to go do something about them. We’re caught in this vicious cycle.”
Are those appointed to the Board, and by extension, those who work for the Board, trying in some measure, even unconsciously, to protect the government from that onus? The fact is that Board approves just over 40% of all claims for compensation, having set standards of proof almost impossibly high for many.

As well, approving too many claims could prove costly for employers.
The Canadian workers’ compensation model is based on an important compromise: employers agree to fund the system through insurance premiums, sharing the liability for workplace injuries.
We all know what happens if we ever make a claim, for example, on our house insurance. Rates rise, sometimes steeply. The same would hold true of employer premiums to the WSIB.

And where is the Ontario government in all of this? While it is demonstrably infected by the virus of neoliberalism (consider, as one example, the sale of 60% of Hydro One in order "to broaden ownership," in the words of Premier Kathleen Wynne), there is further evidence that the disease is progressing:
... new legislation — Bill 70 — is moving ahead and will quietly scale back routine health and safety inspections in favour of employer self-compliance.
UNIFOR is not impressed by the bill:
Health and safety advocates reviewing Bill 70 have serious concerns. The perverse irony this Bill bears the same number as the Bill which birthed Ontario’s original OHSA [Occupational Health & Safety Act] almost 40 years ago is not lost on worker health and safety advocates. Chief among their concerns is the Bill’s intent to allow the government to privatize the processes for setting and approving standards for health and safety training courses...

Equally troubling, in announcing these amendments to OHSA, Ministry of Labour senior staff indicated employers accredited through this possibly self-regulated scheme would be exempt from proactive enforcement by health and safety inspectors and other “routine burdens.”
We have all seen where these efforts at government deregulation to make industry more competitive and self-regulated have led. Walkerton and Maple Leaf Foods are but two examples of what can happen when standards are relaxed.
John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and himself a survivor of occupational cancer, calls the proposal “a horrific mistake.”

“This is a failed policy practice that has been an absolute ideological cover for deregulation resulting in increased harm to workers,” says Bob DeMatteo, an occupational disease expert and former director of health and safety for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
The tragedies experienced by GE workers are, for the most part, irremediable. We honour their losses by reading about them. But our larger responsibility involves making sure that the horrors they have experienced are not repeated, ad nauseam, in the future.

Special Note: In my two posts on this subject, I have only focused on a small part of the Star report. For much more insight into this sad collusion between industry and government, I strongly recommend that you read the entire report here.


  1. The best politicians that money can buy, Lorne. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    1. Thank you, Owen, and the same to you and your family. I'm glad to see that you have gotten over the flu before Christmas.