Hope, heartbreak for former GE workers; After a decade of denials, retiree finally gets compensation. For others, the wait continues

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
The Toronto Star , Apr. 22, 2018

Like hundreds of workers who devoted decades of their lives to General Electric Peterborough, Roger Fowler and Ed Condon wanted one thing: recognition that one of Canada’s oldest and largest industrial facilities, for all the promise and opportunity it offered, also made them sick.

After years of denied compensation claims, a review launched last fall by the provincial compensation board offered the chance to do just that – by re-evaluating some 250 previously rejected cases filed by workers with a range of crippling and often terminal illnesses.

For the Fowler and Condon families, the process has inspired hope in one case and heartbreak in the other.

With its review three-quarters complete, the board has reversed its position in about 48 per cent of the cases it originally denied.

Aaron Lazarus, vice-president of communications for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, said the decisions are based on new evidence and updated science supporting a link between workplace exposures and illness.

A 2016 Star investigation revealed working conditions in decades past at GE Peterborough, in which workers described asbestos fibres floating thick in the air, open pots of lead and mercury dotting the shop floor and 23 massive dip tanks of varnishes and solvents used to coat and degrease motors spreading fumes throughout the plant. GE maintains safety has always been its priority and that it followed the best available practices at the time.

Hundreds of pages of documentation, including reports from the ministries of health and labour, showed unsafe levels of toxic substances at the facility between 1960 and roughly 1980, as well as repeated warnings by government inspectors about poor housekeeping, shoddy ventilation and lack of personal protective equipment.

But of the 660 compensation claims filed since 2005, about half were initially denied or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence.

“Overall, what we’re really trying to do is help bring closure,” Lazarus told the Star.

For 72-year-old colorectal cancer survivor Roger Fowler, that is exactly what the WSIB review has accomplished. And the results are life-changing.

His cheque, received Wednesday, means medical bills covered, financial help for his kids, a fishing trip or two, and most importantly, official recognition that his workplace saddled him with 26 years of sickness and surgeries.

“I actually feel like I’ve had my justice now, like I’m being acknowledged that this actually took place,” Fowler says.

“I would like to see everybody looked after that got sick in there,” he adds. “I know it’s not going to happen. But I would like to see that.”

Ed Condon did not live to see the progress made by his tight-knit community of colleagues, although his daughter Cindy Crossley says she knows he would be proud of what they have accomplished.

Condon died of an inoperable brain tumour in 2012. In his final months, he carefully documented the chemicals he had worked with. The final list was 42 items long and included some of the world’s most deadly substances: arsenic; cyanide; vinyl chloride; asbestos; lead; benzene; DDT;

epoxy resins; silica; and cadmium.

In February, Crossley learned her father’s case was denied for a second time.

“Honestly, we were shocked,” Crossley says. “People talk about a roller-coaster, but that truly is what it feels like.”

The trouble, she feels, is that while the board rightfully initiated a claims review, systemic problems – which led to so many denials in the first place – remain unsolved.

The task of providing sufficient evidence to win a claim, she and her husband, Steve, say, is often nearly impossible for grieving families with no background in navigating the compensation system.

“Mum’s tired. She’ll never give up, but it takes its toll,” Crossley says. “It’s such a confusing process. Nothing is straightforward or easy to understand.”

Although scientific advances in occupational disease may help some GE workers, Crossley adds, it’s an area of research that receives little attention and funding.

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. It also said there was little interaction between the ministries of labour, environment and health in tackling occupational disease even though the issue affects all three and warned that the province suffered from a shortage of trained experts in occupational health.

The link between exposure to multiple toxic substances over time and different kinds of cancer is still poorly understood, making it difficult to win compensation, particularly in cases like her father’s.

“There wasn’t a healthier man,” Crossley says of her father. “He showed up (to GE) every single day of his working life for 42 years. How can you possibly say, ‘No, it’s not the workplace?’ ”

Last week, the Ministry of Labour announced a review of how work-related cancers are evaluated to “ensure the compensation system takes into account best practices and the most up-to-date medical science, including the effects of being exposed to multiple substances in a workplace.”

The review will be led by Paul Demers, director of the Toronto-based Occupational Cancer Research Centre and a professor with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“Occupational diseases, especially cancers, can be difficult to link to workplace exposures,” said Ron Kelusky, the ministry’s chief prevention officer. “It’s not unusual for a worker to file a WSIB claim many years after a job has ended due to the complexities of these diseases.”

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said his government was dedicated to “ensuring all injured workers continue to be treated with dignity and in a timely manner by the compensation system.”

Trusting a system that let him down for more than a decade, was hard, Fowler says.

Although elated about the outcome of his claim, Fowler initially believed his case was hopeless because it was rejected by the compensation board’s highest level of appeal, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.

“Until I saw the final letter the other day, I didn’t believe it,” he says. “After all this time and these disappointments and other people getting turned down, you get worried.”

“I can never get back what I’ve lost. But I can go forward now not worrying about anything.”

That is the quietude the Condon family is still fighting for. His daughter is now challenging the board’s second denial of her father’s claim.

“It shouldn’t be a battle over years. We shouldn’t have to lose employees, their spouses,” Crossley says. “People shouldn’t have to die off while they’re waiting for the right thing to happen.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a firefighter, whether you’re a rocket scientist or whether you’re a factory worker,” she adds.

“Your life matters.”

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