The BC Insulators Union has made a detailed submission to the BC provincial government’s review of deadly asbestos exposure laws and regulations – and we are calling for immediate action to protect workers health and safety and that of residents potentially exposed to asbestos contaminated materials.
Our full report is below for your information and we welcome your questions or comments. The government review is linked directly below as well.
Submission to the BC government consultation on asbestos report – Keeping Workers, the Public and the Environment Safe from Asbestos – from the BC Insulators Union Local 118
“Dust consisting of fine fibers of asbestos, which are insoluble and virtually indestructible, may become a public health problem in the near future.
At a recent international conference on the biological effects of asbestos sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, participants pointed out on the one hand that workers exposed to asbestos dust are prone in later life to develop lung cancer, and on the other hand that the use of this family of fibrous silicate compounds has expanded enormously during the past few decades.
A laboratory curiosity 100 years ago, asbestos today is a major component of building materials.”
- Scientific American, September 1964
Asbestos has been recognized as an extremely deadly substance for over half a century – and yet to this day there are unscrupulous asbestos removal and consulting firms flagrantly exposing workers and communities across British Columbia to this carcinogenic killer.
Our system to protect workers from the leading cause of workplace deaths in B.C. is not working.
Our system to protect residents near the sites of asbestos removal and disposal is not working.
It is not “time for a change” – it is a change long past due.
The evidence is overwhelming – and deeply troubling.
The BC Insulators Union received information from WorkSafeBC about violations of asbestos abatement regulations designed to protect both workers and nearby residents when potentially asbestos-containing materials [ACMs] are being removed.
It is astonishing that in over half of all WorkSafeBC inspections in 2018 there were orders issued requiring employers to come into compliance with well-established occupational health and safety regulations related to asbestos.
In 2018, WorkSafeBC Prevention Officers conducted 1577 asbestos inspections, resulting in 764 compliance orders, we learned.
And even more disturbing, WorkSafeBC issued 95 orders requiring employers to immediately stop work in order to address even more serious health and safety issues.
These statistics showing half of all inspections resulted in orders to comply represents only a fraction of the asbestos abatement problem in BC – because WorkSafeBC can hardly be expected to inspect more than a small fraction of all ongoing asbestos abatement projects.
With 12% of all WorkSafeBC compliance orders including a stop work order, it is clear that there is widespread and flagrant violations of regulations that govern a substance that is responsible for the single biggest cause of workplaces deaths.
It is time for the BC government to act quickly, decisively and firmly to ensure the health and safety of construction workers and communities.
It is time to hold asbestos abatement and asbestos removal consulting firms to account for their violations of WorkSafeBC laws and regulations; to force firms already fined for those violations to pay the millions of dollars owed to the province; and to put out of business those who repeatedly and shamelessly violate these laws while condemning workers to a slow painful death from mesothelioma or other cancers or lung diseases in the years ahead.
This is not a debatable topic; it is not a backburner issue – it is critically, overwhelmingly important and every day spent delaying meaningful action is a day where another worker gets exposed to asbestos.
Forgive us if we are neither patient nor calm about asbestos exposure – no one should be if they had seen the tragic and painful deaths our members and other workers have suffered over the past 50 years.
And unfortunately, the legacy of asbestos will be far too long lasting as well. We believe it will take 50 years to safely remove asbestos from all of our buildings and ensure workers and residents are safe.
The death toll is staggering already. Between 1996 and 2017, there were 1,101 deaths due to historical asbestos exposure in BC, and about one-third of those fatalities were construction workers.
In 2017, WorkSafeBC reported that 53 workers died from asbestos-exposure related illnesses, predominantly mesothelioma, out of 158 work-related death claims accepted.
That means in just one year 53 workers’ families will lose their loved one’ 53 workers will never know the love of a grandchild yet to be born; 53 workers who will leave behind grieving spouses, children, family members and friends.
And all of these deaths were preventable. All of these workers could have lived out longer, productive lives had they not been negligently or even intentionally exposed to asbestos at their job.
Asbestos is the number one occupational health killer in British Columbia – and it has been for far too many years.
So please act as quickly as possible – you will literally be saving lives by doing so.
Responses to Potential Actions
This submission is organized with our response to each of the Keeping Workers, the Public and the Environment Safe from Asbestos report’s “potential action that can be taken” – followed by our position, additional information and conclusions.
“1. That government consider establishing a licensing scheme that would apply to asbestos abatement contractors, consultants and surveyors, and that government designate a ministry that would take the lead in working with industry, labour and all other stakeholders to establish the licensing scheme.”
First – an asbestos abatement licensing system is the single most effective and cost effective way to dramatically reduce the exposure of workers and communities to deadly asbestos.
We cannot overstate the importance of establishing a licensing system that would allow government to stop the business operations immediately of any contractor, consultant or surveyor who is clearly breaking the rules and laws established for workers’ and the public’s safety.
Currently we see a multitude of contractors, consultants and surveyors who have been found in violation of health and safety regulations be fined – often repeatedly – and yet continue to operate their businesses without changing their practices.
There are currently several contractors operating to this day while owing thousands of dollars or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or – in at least one case – a Surrey company owes over $1.1 million dollars to WorkSafeBC for repeated and flagrant violations of the rules – violations that have exposed their workers and nearby residents to a carcinogenic contaminant.
In addition, the BC Insulators Union has been informed by WorkSafeBC in response to our inquiries, that in 2018 there were 37 administrative penalties related to violations of asbestos regulations issued totaling $237,386 in fines – but only 17 have been paid in full and a total of $66,256 has been collected to-date.
And if those companies found in violation have no assets, the fines can never be collected – and the principal owners can go on to form new companies and start all over again.
WorkSafeBC has also stated that 12 injunctions have been issued by the British Columbia Supreme Court against asbestos abatement contractors and hazardous materials inspectors and surveyors to force them to comply with orders or health and safety regulations. Again, that some unscrupulous businesses are so blatantly breaking the rules and laws that a court order is needed shows changes must be made.
This tragic situation should be absolutely unacceptable to any government. Sadly, action was not taken years earlier – now there should no excuse.
It is bad enough that violators not pay the price for their neglect of the rules or intentionally breaking them.
But when the true price of their violations is suffered by many of their workers, who will eventually die from a terrible disease, then the need for swift and effective action is unquestionable.
What licensing does is provide an appropriate and effective method of ensuring compliance with the laws and regulations already in place.
Licensing asbestos contractors, consultants and surveyors is not breaking new ground – not at all.
The nearby states of Washington and Oregon, as well as many other states, require licensing for contractors, workers and testing laboratories.
And the United Kingdom and Australia have been licensing asbestos abatement firms for many years.
As the UK government rightly states:
“Asbestos is classified as a category 1 carcinogen, with asbestos related disease causing around 5000 deaths every year in the UK. Work with asbestos requires a high degree of regulatory control and the purpose of licensing is to achieve this.” [Emphasis added]
In conclusion, the models for asbestos licensing already exist elsewhere – they simply need to be applied in an appropriate and effective manner for British Columbia.
Second – there is no question whatsoever that the lead ministry in the provincial government that must be responsible for licensing is the Labour Ministry.
All asbestos exposure involves workers.
Protecting workers from exposure to asbestos in the assessment, removal and disposal of asbestos contaminated material is of paramount importance and is the cornerstone for effective action to save workers’ lives.
But it is also crucial to protecting residents in nearby buildings to those undergoing abatement and those along asbestos removal routes and asbestos disposal facilities.
Because if workers are not safe, residents are also not safe.
In other words, everything to do with protecting workers also protects communities from the same deadly substance.
That’s why the BC Insulators Union extremely strongly recommends that the lead ministry for supervising and administrating a provincial asbestos firm licensing program must be the Labour Ministry.
The Labour Ministry has the expertise, the experience and the ability to coordinate all aspects of safely regulating asbestos abatement.
Any other Ministry would be both duplicating existing core competencies that already exist in the Labour Ministry and in WorkSafeBC and be in an ineffective catch-up position for many years.
Naturally, the Labour Ministry would liaise with other key Ministries to coordinate all provincial efforts, especially with the ministries of Environment and Climate Change and Housing and Municipal Affairs.
But without question the lead ministry must be the one with the most experience, knowledge and ability to move quickly to implement licensing and save lives – that is the Labour Ministry.
“2. That the lead ministry and representatives from other parts of government as necessary and appropriate work closely with affected stakeholders on the development and implementation of an appropriate licensing model.”
We agree that this role should be undertaken by the Labour Ministry as the lead ministry and that government work with stakeholders on developing the licensing model.
But we caution against a lengthy process that delays implementation of a licensing model that will keep unscrupulous contractors out of the asbestos abatement business and allow them to continue exposing their workers and nearby residents to deadly asbestos.
“3. That BC move to adopt provincially recognized standards and programs for the training of asbestos abatement workers.”
We agree but wish to emphasize that insulators receive asbestos abatement health and safety training as part of their 1styear of apprenticeship and are already qualified to undertake such work.
We believe that the model for asbestos abatement training developed by the BC Insulators Union should be followed, with WorkSafeBC to certify all workers; and that an expert advisory panel be established to resolve any differences with other training programs to ensure maximum worker safety. The BC Insulators Union welcomes the opportunity to work with WorkSafeBC, other organizations and government to quickly develop appropriate certification standards and implement them.
The certification of asbestos abatement workers is mandatory in most programs in other jurisdictions where contractors require licensing.
“4. That the lead ministry, WorkSafeBC and representatives from other parts of government as necessary and appropriate work closely with affected stakeholders on the development and implementation of provincially recognized standards and programs for the training and certification of asbestos abatement workers. This group should also consider whether any certification requirement should apply to all asbestos abatement workers, or whether it should apply just to some workers based upon specified criteria.”
As above, the Labour Ministry should quickly develop these standards based on existing provincially recognized standards and utilizing the existing training program requirement for all 1styear insulator apprenticeships.
Without question these standards must apply to all asbestos abatement workers.
Creating categories with two different sets of criteria for two different types of asbestos abatement workers is introducing an unnecessary and problematic element of serious risk. And the consequence of getting the criteria wrong means workers being accidentally exposed to a carcinogenic substance.
One category equivalent training for asbestos abatement workers eliminates that unnecessary risk and is hardly onerous given the potential consequences of error.
“5. That a process involving appropriate and interested government ministries, WorkSafeBC, local governments, BC laboratories currently providing asbestos testing services, and other interested stakeholders be established to develop provincially recognized competencies and practices for analyzing asbestos samples and reporting on results. The purpose of this work would be to document good and best practices that clearly meet the needs of laboratory clients.”
WorkSafeBC should be tasked with the primary responsibility for developing BC-wide recognized competencies and practices for asbestos analysis and results reporting, reporting to the Ministry of Labour.
Once again, this is clearly within WorkSafeBC’s existing mandate and it has the skills and experience to do the job, working where necessary with other ministries and agencies of government.
We do not see a role for local governments in determining provincial standards – there should be uniform requirements in every part of the province to ensure health and safety.
“6. That BC consider moving to adopt an accreditation requirement (such as ISO 17025) for laboratories that provide asbestos testing services that is informed by the results of the process proposed in the fifth recommendation.”
We strongly agree. Having laboratories accredited – and by an arms-length independent monitor – is crucial to protecting the lives of workers and the public.
Any licensing program, let alone the assurance that proper health and safety laws and regulations are being observed in asbestos abatement, would be completely undercut if laboratories were in any way reporting in a less than rigorous and monitored manner.
“7. That WorkSafeBC develop and consider options for promoting independent third party air monitoring.”
We again agree. Independent third party monitoring is critical to ensuring that those who remove and dispose of asbestos are in no way also monitoring their own work.
“8. That the lead ministry engage with local governments, other ministries, WorkSafeBC and other agencies as applicable on steps that could be taken to require that pre-demolition hazardous materials inspections and reports be undertaken by a qualified person, and to require confirmation that an asbestos abatement has been properly completed prior to the issuance of a renovation, demolition or building permit.”
We also agree that the Labour Ministry, WorkSafeBC and other ministries and agencies ensure that all inspections and analysis be done by qualified contractors, workers,
surveyors, consultants and laboratories and that everyone involved sign off and be held responsible for doing their part appropriately.
“9. That MoH with WorkSafeBC proceed with the development of a public health policy and guideline to address the previous provincial Medical Health Officer’s concerns about asbestos disturbances in public places that have the potential of placing the general public at risk of exposure to asbestos (see Appendix 2). In addition, MoH and WorkSafeBC complete their work on a Memorandum of Understanding that will establish a protocol for the sharing of information.”
This is another critical part of the solution. We have disturbingly seen repeated instances of unscrupulous contractors dumping bags of asbestos-containing materials [ACM] in back alleys under cover of darkness – literally fly-by-night operators.
Numerous media reports on this dangerous practice have been filed in the past few years in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and other municipalities.
One of the root cause of these illegal ACM dumping incidents is the serious lack of both transportation and disposal options. British Columbia and especially Metro Vancouver need more disposal sites and the means to get the ACMs to those sites, with disposal fees low enough to discourage dumping and penalties for doing so high enough to stop this dangerous practice.
“10. That with a view to addressing the confusion and uncertainty expressed by stakeholders about the different definitions of what constitutes ACMs in the MOE and WorkSafeBC regulations, MOE and WorkSafeBC develop materials to provide a clear rationale and explanation to all interested and affected parties in the asbestos abatement and disposal process as to why the standards and requirements are different. The intent is that these materials would also clarify the different purposes that they serve and when they apply, with a view to providing clear guidance to interested parties on how these two definitions operate together and not in conflict with one another.”
WorkSafeBC regulations are the higher standard regulations and safety of workers and communities must come first. Therefore, Ministry of Environment regulations must match the standards set by WorkSafeBC.
We absolutely and profoundly reject suggestions in this Report from some stakeholders [page 23] regarding “challenges and unintended consequences associated with attempting to apply a single high standard in all situation.”
Non-friable asbestos can easily become friable and then released into the atmosphere in fine particles.
In no way should the government or WorkSafeBC consider “a more flexible, risk-based approach” to asbestos. That is a recipe for disaster and a guarantee that more lives will be lost to this deadly substance.
It should be understood that disposing of ACMs is not a for all eternity project – it has a finite time period and unfortunately we are right in the middle of it.
That is why every conceivable precaution should be taken now – when it can save lives – to ensure the health and safety of everyone who may come in contact with asbestos.
Lastly, we note that the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists– a world recognized leading authority on asbestos exposure that was founded in 1938 – has similar standards as those used by WorkSafeBC.
“11. That the provincial government consider: what, if any, role it could play in encouraging and supporting incentive programs that the federal and municipal governments may be considering; whether the provincial government sees any role for itself in developing a provincial incentive program; and whether the provincial government should join in or otherwise support stakeholders that have been lobbying the federal government for a national incentive program aimed at encouraging the safe removal and disposal of asbestos.”
We strongly support all incentive programs that would encourage building owners, be they industrial, commercial, governmental or residential, to safely remove, transport and dispose of asbestos containing materials in a safe and responsible way.
The provincial government can not only assist municipal governments and the federal government in providing an incentive program for asbestos abatement, it can literally save lives and money by doing so.
The financial costs of workers undergoing extended and expensive medical treatment for asbestos related illness such as mesothelioma are tremendous. But the social costs are even worse for those affected, their families and friends.
An incentive program should, however, not simply be seen as a health and safety issue – although it certainly is – but also as a significant job creation program that stimulates the BC economy and creates jobs while saving lives.
We would add that the model for such an incentive program was that used to remove urea-formaldehyde foam insulation [UFFI] – a health hazard that was widely used in Canada in the 1970s and has been banned since 1980. The insulation would deteriorate and release dangerous formaldehyde gas.
A federal program to provide financial assistance to homeowners to remove UFFI – which had previously been approved for use by the government – ran from 1981 to 1986.
A new program could use tax credits for building owners safely removing and disposing of ACMs.
It should be noted that asbestos was a government approved insulation product for many, many years before it was known to be dangerous to health, meaning that there should be some obligation on the part of government to help fix a problem it created, unknowingly at first.
“12. That WorkSafeBC continue with its asbestos awareness initiatives, and that it consider expanding these initiatives to other target audiences as warranted and appropriate (e.g., the automotive repair and maintenance industry).”
WorkSafeBC’s asbestos awareness initiatives have played a key and critical role in increasing public and contractor knowledge about the dangers of ACM removal, transport and disposal.
We believe it is vitally important to continue and to expand these awareness initiatives.
We are particularly concerned about the high degree of potential worker exposure to asbestos in the automotive repair and maintenance industry in BC.
The federal government ban on asbestos-containing automotive parts only took effect in late 2018, meaning many cars on the road today have asbestos laden brake pads that will need service and replacement for many years ahead.
The widespread use of asbestos in brake parts – often manufactured in overseas countries with no prohibition on the use of asbestos – means BC automotive workers can be unknowingly exposed to a carcinogenic product with no warning, let alone appropriate training and protective equipment.
It is also important that the provincial government push the federal government to enforce the existing ban on the use of asbestos in all products, including automotive parts.
“13. That the provincial government and WorkSafeBC work with stakeholders to develop additional public knowledge and awareness initiatives that focus in particular on changing public attitudes.”
The provincial government and WorkSafeBC should do all they can to ensure stakeholders understand the dangers of asbestos exposure.
We believe that many offenders who have broken asbestos health and safety rules are primarily ill-informed as to the deadly results of even minor contact with asbestos fibres – not that they are intentionally forcing their workers – or even themselves – to play Russian roulette.
The challenge of asbestos – like that earlier of tobacco smoking – is its invisibility and the slow movement of deadly mesothelioma and other illnesses it causes.
If employers and workers were dealing instead with fire rather than asbestos there would be no question about the need for protection against injury and death.
“14. That local governments continue to develop and pilot test measures aimed at making it easier for homeowners to dispose of small quantities of ACMs.”
Local governments have a significant challenge that requires provincial help.
The root cause of homeowners wrongly and dangerously removing asbestos containing materials is that municipalities are not being supported on ACM disposal.
Municipalities need help managing the hazardous waste stream, including the disposal of ACMs.
Put simply, there should be absolutely no impediments to the safe disposal of ACMs anywhere in the province. Period.
We are, however, concerned about empowering homeowners to dispose of any quantity of ACMs, small or otherwise, when they simply do not have the required training, knowledge or experience needed to handle a deadly substance safely.
We believe all asbestos disposal should be done by certified workers, contractors, surveyors and consultants.
And our recommendation of an incentive program, if adopted, could ensure that for small amounts of ACMs the homeowner would get back all their costs of safely disposing of asbestos – and without risk to their own and their family’s and neighbourhood’s health.
“15. That the lead ministry and MOE engage with local governments and the private sector to develop and consider options for addressing stakeholder concerns about insufficient capacity within BC for the safe disposal of ACMs.”
Again, we agree, but with a sense of extreme urgency.
The province, through the Labour Ministry and working with the Ministry of Environment, needs to develop regional hazardous waste disposal sites for ACMs and potentially other substances.
We believe there need to be accessible and affordable waste disposal sites in Metro Vancouver – at least two; two on Vancouver Island – north and south; Prince George; Cache Creek, Cranbrook and possible additional locations.
We also believe that existing waste management sites need to be upgraded to take and transfer ACMs to new disposal sites. And that those waste management sites need trained, certified workers with appropriate protective gear.
The development of new hazardous waste disposal sites will help deal with one of the biggest challenges to implementation of safe disposal – the underground economy of fly-by-night, unscrupulous asbestos abatement contractors who violate not only safety laws and regulations but avoid paying taxes for their companies and workers, WorkSafeBC fees and other taxes and fees that legitimate companies and their workers all pay.
We further believe that if our other recommendations are adopted as outlined here, the combined effect will be to dramatically reduce and marginalize illegal, underground economy players in the asbestos abatement industry – a good thing for everyone.
“16. That using the naturally occurring asbestos sub-team’s report as a basis, MOE, MoH and MEMPR work together on any other potential next steps and a path forward.”
While this is outside our area of expertise and experience, we concur with the Report’s recommendation and urge this work proceed quickly, as naturally occurring asbestos can be equally deadly to anyone exposed to it.
The BC Insulators Union Local 118 welcomes the opportunity to provide the BC government with responses to Keeping Workers, the Public and the Environment Safe from Asbestos.
We again urge the government, all ministries and WorkSafeBC to act quickly to dramatically reduce the current levels of unnecessary and dangerous exposure to asbestos – the number one killer of workers in BC year after year.
Taken together, we believe that our recommendations to the Report could both immediately and over a short period of time make asbestos abatement significantly safer for workers and for communities where asbestos containing materials are being removed, transported and disposed of.
We also believe that stakeholders are ready and willing to work quickly with you to end the sad litany of annual reports on the causes of workers’ death from workplace exposure to asbestos.
This is, above all, a needless human tragedy.
As we write our response, dozens of British Columbians are in the last year of their lives due to the ravages of mesothelioma, cancer and other asbestos-exposure caused illnesses.
Medical science cannot save them – these terrible illnesses are now unstoppable for those affected.
But we can and must save the lives of others who have not yet been exposed to asbestos – but could be any day due to a lack of adequate protection and knowledge about this deadly substance.
Please do not undertake more studies, more consultations, more meetings and more delays.
The time for action isn’t now, it was some time ago – let’s not delay at the costs of more lives lost – let’s act.
If our urgency seems in any way overemphasized it’s because we have already lost too many family, friends, members and other workers to asbestos. We don’t want to keep adding to that tragic list.
Thank you for listening.