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June 2, 2021

After mounting pressure, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) will carry out the Paul Demers report recommendations around occupational disease. Leading up to the Day of Mourning on April 28, 2021, the OFL and its affiliates gave a status update that action on the report is long overdue:

  • Update list of cancers that grant swifter compensation
  • Create independent scientific review panel to provide checks and balances in the compensation process
  • Commit resources to ramp up investigations and proactive research into cancer clusters and other emerging health issues
  • Increase access to exposure data and build combined database

If the WSIB follows through on their commitment, such changes could grant swifter, fairer and more independent access to compensation for occupational disease in the province. Ontario Federation of Labour President Patty Coates says, “The report responded to a broken compensation system that obstructed justice for victims of occupational disease and their families. Workers need a seat at the table during its implementation, but also on an ongoing basis, on the independent review panel.”

The WSIB reports it reviewed claims in Kitchener-Waterloo and Peterborough and is now moving onto McIntyre Powder-exposed miners.

Sue James, former Peterborough General Electric (GE) worker and spokesperson for the disease cluster, was offended the WSIB considers the review as complete, as many of those cases were denied because they did not have the benefit of emerging science. Yet, she felt a flicker of hope when she heard the Demers report news. James says, “While I try to remain upbeat and optimistic that change is about to happen, I am always cautious to be too hopeful. It is far past the time for political lip service that should be turned into concrete and constructive action,” noting the group has been fighting for justice since 1994. She also notes that much work is needed to make sure that what sounds good on paper brings justice to workers and their families.

Janice Martell, daughter of a miner exposed to McIntyre powder and founder of the McIntyre Powder Project echoes James’ cautious optimism. “Meaningful change begins with acknowledgment of the evidence, and these workers ARE the evidence of occupational disease. I am cautiously encouraged by the WSIB’s stated intention to begin implementing changes that have meaningful impact for these workers and their families.” 

Both James and Martell agree that any changes, such as the occupational disease panel, needs to bring workers to the table.

Paul Demers was pleasantly surprised to hear about the WSIB’s positive response in their 2020 Economic Statement. Demers notes, “The fair compensation of occupational disease is a challenging problem across Canada and it would be great to have the WSIB become the country’s leader on how to address the unacceptably high burden of cancer and other chronic diseases attributable to workplace exposure.”

Coates adds, “We will continue to apply pressure and make sure the WSIB takes workers’ lead on how to implement the changes. Workers and their families cannot continue to wait years and sometimes decades for a decision, and certainly cannot have their case based on outdated, biased or junk science.”

Looking to the future, James asks, “Will we ever break the deadly pattern of studying the issue and then responding with platitudes?”

COPE 343

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