Reviews underway for former GE workers; Out of 16 cases already reopened, WSIB has overturned 10 decisions to deny chemical exposure claims

Kristin Rushowy

The Toronto Star , Oct. 24, 2017

After 26 years, Roger Fowler finally has hope.

The retired General Electric worker, who believes his cancer was caused by the two decades he spent working among toxic chemicals in the company’s Peterborough plant, received a call late last week saying his WSIB claim is being reviewed.

But the roller-coaster ride he’s been on since the 1990s – having his claim turned down, being rejected again on appeal, then informed he would get a review, only to be told no because of the previous rejection – means the 71-year-old is still wary.

“After what I’ve been through, you can’t trust anybody until you see it in writing, or somebody calls me and says, ‘You are in,'” Fowler said in a phone interview. “I’m worried in a hopeful way. I’m really nervous.”

Fowler, a colorectal cancer survivor who worked at the plant for 22 years, is among hundreds of former employees between 1945 and 2000 who say their cancer or serious illness was a result of exposure to thousands of chemicals at the site.

Their compensation claims were earlier dismissed by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

But in recent months, new research has found they were exposed to the toxic substances at unsafe levels – and about 40 of those chemicals have been linked to cancer – so the board decided to reconsider some 250 cases that had previously been denied.

The WSIB has since looked at 16 of those cases, and so far 10 of them have been overturned, with six denials upheld. The rest of the 250 claimants have been told to expect letters in the mail this week as the reviews get underway.

“It’s taken a while to get to this point, but I think we’re doing it the right way because we are now going to see an orderly progression,” Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said.

In the past, he added, “there were no claims being dealt with … when you look at how far this dates back, now that the WSIB is starting to move through the process in an orderly way … if they can keep this pace” all should be dealt with by the end of the year or early spring.

Last week, Fowler was part of a group who came to Queen’s Park to say the Ministry of Labour was dragging its feet and failing to make good on promises, such as $2 million in funding for a specialized team based in Peterborough to help workers with their WSIB claims.

In 2016, the Star chronicled the “lethal legacy” of the Peterborough plant and, earlier this year, a study by the Unifor union found an “epidemic” of workplace illnesses for those who worked at the plant up until 2000, when it was decontaminated.

The GE Peterborough plant was the area’s largest employer, and made diesel locomotive engines, nuclear reactor fuel cells and hydro generators, as well as appliances and other items. Over its 125-year history, the plant has employed tens of thousands of workers, and GE has said health and safety has always been the company’s “No. 1 priority.”

The WSIB says that since 1993, about 80 per cent of some 2,400 GE claims were allowed, though critics have said the number of approved cancer claims is just one-quarter. Given the new findings, the WSIB is now looking at more than 250 rejected claims and urging workers who haven’t yet put in a claim to come forward.

The WSIB says it has received more than 60 calls in the past month, and 30 new claims are now being processed.

“New scientific research and information from the community is helping to shed new light on the substances people were exposed to,” said Aaron Lazarus of the WSIB. “We are working to thoroughly review each claim as quickly as possible so that people have answers and the benefits they may be entitled to.”

The additional cases that have come forward may be reviewed under a different, expedited process, Flynn has said, and advocates have been urging automatic approval.

Last Thursday during question period, New Democrat MPP Cindy Forster (Welland) asked why the workers and their families haven’t yet received compensation. She noted that while the WSIB has been rejecting claims, it has continued to give businesses a cut in premiums.

What the workers have gone through is tragic, added NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “A lot of their colleagues have passed away over the years with terrible cancers and illnesses – it’s just horrifying.”

She said the government needs to act much faster.

“What they shouldn’t do is keep stringing them along,” she added.

“What they shouldn’t do is give them false hope and make false promises and I think that’s why they are so frustrated – they really did believe that the government was going to step up to the plate and get the WSIB to proactively get these claims resolved and start ensuring that those who are left are able to get the compensation they deserve from the toxic exposures in the workplace.”

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