Asbestos is #1 workplace killer in B.C.

One truck. Twelve people. And a large pile of asbestos.

That's what Delta Police encountered during a traffic stop in North Delta earlier this summer. Officers noticed four people in the front seat, prompting them to pull over the vehicle at Nordel Way and Scott Road. Then they discovered another six people in the rear seat and two more in the cargo box next to "a large amount of asbestos material."

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The force's Facebook page notes, "The driver received 6 violation tickets, and his business has been reported to WorkSafe BC."

I hope WorkSafe BC throws the book at this contractor. It's bad enough to squeeze 12 people into a vehicle meant to safely seat six, but it's another level of ignorance to pack them next to the No. 1 workplace killer in B.C. I doubt the asbestos was properly contained when the workers weren't even properly contained.

There were 31 work-related deaths in the B.C construction industry due to asbestos in 2017, representing a whopping 72 per cent increase over 2016. When other job sectors such as manufacturing and transportation are included, asbestos accounted for 70 work-related deaths in 2017.

Asbestos damages the lungs and causes asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma between 20 and 40 years after exposure. I'm told that having mesothelioma is like slowly drowning to death.

Asbestos hasn't been widely used in B.C. since the early 1990s, but anyone who repairs, renovates or demolishes an older building is at risk of inhaling asbestos fibres unless proper safety measures are taken. You can imagine the risk to the workers in the truck pulled over by Delta Police as they bounced around in the back, in 30-degree heat, with piles of asbestos-laden material next to them.

Unfortunately, this careless contractor isn't alone.

WorkSafe BC issued a warning to homeowners last October urging them to talk to their contractor about asbestos before starting a renovation or demolition. If asbestos is found, the law requires employers to hire only a qualified abatement contractor to remove it. In addition, a "notice of project" must be submitted to WorkSafe for all asbestos work.

WorkSafe's October campaign targeting homeowners builds on an awareness campaign last summer targeting contractors. WorkSafe is right to invest in this area, and one needs to look no further than the example of BCS Contracting for proof.

An asbestos-abatement company, BCS Contracting of Surrey has racked up 16 penalties totalling $1.118 million since 2011. The biggest single fine was issued in March 2016 for $628,034.57 for failing to project workers with proper clothing and respiratory apparatus. A WorkSafe report noted "the firm committed high-risk violations." BCS failed to safely contain and remove asbestos-containing materials and failed to adhere to appropriate procedures for asbestos control and handling.

Whatever resources WorkSafe invests in asbestos awareness and compliance surely pale in comparison to the cost of asbestos on our health care system. It is estimated that one single case of lung cancer or mesothelioma costs our health system more than $1 million.

As Canadians, we should not be proud of our government's track record on asbestos. As recently as 2010, Quebec was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos and exporting about 90 per cent of it to developing countries. At the same time, while 50 other countries in the world had banned the mining and use of asbestos, Canada successfully lobbied the UN to keep this cancer-causing killer off a list of hazardous substances.

At the same time, while 50 other countries in the world had banned the mining and use of asbestos, Canada successfully lobbied the UN to keep this cancer-causing killer off a list of hazardous substances.

Finally, in 2018, Canada introduced new rules to prohibit the use, sale, import and export of products containing asbestos. Those regulations are expected to become law this fall.

Eventually, asbestos will be history, both literally and figuratively. But based on cases like those described here of poor removal and handling practices, and the latency period for asbestos-related disease, we are a long, long way from then.

Tom Sigurdson is executive director of the BC Building Trades.


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