NOTE: The following important article is reprinted from WorkSafe magazine’s July-August 2014 edition, with permission.
By Helena Brian
Lee Loftus has attended more funerals in the past decade than most people do in a lifetime.
As business manager of the Insulators’ Union of BC, managing the end-of-life affairs of union members with asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer comes with the territory.
“I’ve buried more people than the number of my fingers and toes,” Loftus says.
In fact, countless workers who helped make or install asbestos have died. And many more who worked in the construction, oil and gas, and mining industries throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s died 20 to 30 years after exposure.
As a veteran insulator, Loftus himself is showing the early signs of asbestos-related disease: scar tissue on the linings of his lungs caused by indestructible asbestos fibres that likely lodged there decades ago.
His condition will only worsen over time; it’s a reality this 58-year-old father and grandfather takes in stride — because he knows he can’t undo the damage.
But making sure the next generation is spared a similar fate is another matter. Because the fact is this: more than 30 years after the substance was banned for being the source of chronic lung diseases, asbestos remains the number-one worksite killer.
And despite all we know today about asbestos hazards, and stringent regulations in place since the mid-1980s that protect workers from exposures, workers are still being exposed at an alarming rate.
The situation is so serious that WorkSafeBC and others are raising the stakes for those who continue to expose employees and the public to such a dangerous substance. In fact, for those who willfully ignore the regulations, WorkSafeBC is boosting its enforcement activity as part of a program begun in 2010.
Starting March 17, 2014, WorkSafeBC occupational hygiene and safety officers throughout the province began inspecting house demolition sites, and will continue this focus until December 31, 2014.
Testing is a necessary first step
By the time asbestos was banned almost four decades ago, it had already been installed for its strength and heat resistance in ships, hospitals, schools, bridges, and homes everywhere.
Structures built before 1990 — about 400,000 in B.C. — probably harbour asbestos in drywall taping compounds, stippled ceilings, sheet flooring, attic insulation, or furnace wrap, just to name a few.
And for WorkSafeBC regional prevention manager Gary McComb that means “most current demolitions and renovations are going to release invisible asbestos fibres.”
WorkSafeBC regulations call for rigorous asbestos testing before any demolition or renovation, and proper removal of contaminated materials by experienced asbestos abatement companies. But while some individuals, contractors, and consultants meet or exceed the requirements — others are either unqualified for the job, or they circumvent standards to save money.
“An unscrupulous contractor will roll the dice and cut corners to save money, hoping we won’t turn up.”
— Chad Born North Vancouver-based WorkSafeBC occupational hygiene officer
It’s a frustrating situation for Don Whyte, executive director of the BC Hazardous Materials Association, whose member contractors and contract employees participate in a comprehensive asbestos abatement worker training program.
“Right now, all you need to start a demolition or abatement company is a business card,” Whyte says.
“There are no standards for competency or legislative requirements.
“In reality, asbestos abatement has become a very technical procedure that requires extreme diligence, meticulous attention to detail, and a well-trained workforce.”
Outfits like Vision Remediation Limited, a North Vancouver-based company in the hazardous materials removal business since 1999, are also frustrated with the ease with which people can enter the market.
“The unqualified companies out there don’t share the same safety costs, so we can’t be successful bidding against them,” says president Darrell Morie.
“If we’re stripping 7,000 square feet of contaminated drywall from an average home,” Morie says, “it’ll cost $7,000 for disposal alone, because it has to be shipped to Alberta for $1 a foot.
An untrained contractor might claim the drywall is uncontaminated and send it to a gypsum recycler for $1,000.”
What’s more, Morie says, asbestos may be handled improperly during the disposal phase.
“If workers aren’t properly trained for drywall sample collection, the results could offer false negatives,” he says. “Also, a contractor could knowingly submit improper samples for analysis, and a lot of laboratories aren’t properly trained to do this kind of analysis.”
McComb is familiar with tactics that pose a danger to worker health: instances where the surveyors hired to do the initial hazardous materials testing didn’t take nearly enough samples for an accurate reading, or where contractors actually falsified survey documents to show no asbestos.
That not only puts employees on site at risk, says McComb, but also the landfill and drywall recycling plant employees who handle construction waste, and the truck drivers who transport it. Then, there are the homeowners and adjacent neighbours. And, the families of workers who take the deadly fibres home with them.
Willing partners join the cause
In response to the fact that some simply don’t know the regulations or the prevalence of asbestos, WorkSafeBC continues to focus on employer and worker education. What’s more, the City of Vancouver is going the extra mile to help.
As of 2009, the City requires those seeking a demolition permit for abatement of pre-1990 buildings to provide the results of a hazardous materials survey before issuing the permit, says Nicole Horspool, City of Vancouver occupational health and safety consultant. In addition, each permit package includes a WorkSafeBC bulletin outlining the asbestos hazards in demolition, renovation, and salvage.
“An unscrupulous contractor will roll the dice and cut corners to save money, hoping we won’t turn up,” says Chad Born, North Vancouver-based WorkSafeBC occupational hygiene officer, and a member of the enforcement initiative. “But the longer we do this, the better we are at knowing where to find willful non-compliance.
“We know who these offenders are and who they work with,” Born says. “These are the guys who don’t care about the human consequences; it’s all about perceived risk and reward.”
For an experienced abatement company to strip a home, for example, it might cost $20,000, compared to WorkSafeBC’s fines for infractions, which start at $2,500. “But those fines double every time, and they can get very big, very fast,” Born says.
Court fines or jail time
What happens if unprincipled contractors simply ignore the fines? “They could end up in court, or even jail,” says Scott Nielsen, WorkSafeBC director of litigation.
WorkSafeBC recently sought a court order against Arthur Moore. He continued to expose workers to asbestos — many of them lured from drug-and-alcohol-treatment centres — despite multiple orders to stop work and the threat of significant fines.
The court order was granted, commanding Moore to stop exposing people to asbestos. When he continued to do so, the B.C. Court of Appeal eventually found him in contempt, and he was sent to jail for 60 days.
Criminal charges in the future?
Some in the industry believe there should be criminal penalties for those who repeatedly fail to protect workers from asbestos exposure: Loftus, for one. The president of BC Building Trades, an umbrella organization working on behalf of 35,000 construction workers, is lobbying hard for protocols to allow for criminal prosecution of offenders.
In the meantime, as long as there are operators willing to endanger workers’ lives and undercut legitimate contractors, WorkSafeBC will continue to enforce the Regulation, impose fines, and seek legal action against those who could or do expose workers to asbestos.
A few facts about asbestos
• You can find asbestos in more than 3,000 construction and industrial products
• Since 2000, more workers have died from asbestos-related disease than any
other workplace disease.
• Asbestos was responsible for 512 occupational deaths between 2002 and 2011 alone.
• On average, 500 claims for asbestos exposure are filed each year in B.C.
• These figures represent only a small number of exposures occurring every day.
For guidelines, videos, toolbox meeting guides, safety bulletins, print publications, web resources, and exposure control plans, visit www2.worksafebc.com/Topics/OccDisease/HazMatExposure.asp?ReportID=36949
North Vancouver writer Helena Bryan has written for WorkSafe Magazine for more than a decade.