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‘Breathe deep, boys’: miners share stories of McIntyre Powder

Workplace malpractice in the mining industry persists today: physician

It’s been more than 40 years since Roger Genoe first breathed in McIntyre Powder while working in Elliot Lake’s Quirke II Mine. But he remembers the feel of the aluminum dust like it was yesterday.

As an apprentice electrician, Genoe started each day at the Rio Algom uranium mine getting his assignment sheet before heading to the dry where he swapped out his street clothes for the coveralls, boots and safety equipment he’d wear for the day.

In that changeroom, he and his shiftmates would wait, shoulder to shoulder, on long benches while the shift supervisor sealed the room before spraying McIntyre Powder into the air.

It entered their noses, their eyes, their mouths and, eventually, their lungs, coating everything in a fine, jet-black powder that lingered throughout the day.

"The room was filled with dust, just a black powder,” Genoe recalled. “I called it graphite because it would get into the pores in your skin, on your hands, on your clothes.”

If a miner tried to shield his face with his T-shirt or coveralls, Genoe said, the supervisor would correct him, or haul him up before the shift boss for a reprimand.

Because they needed the work, most miners eventually acquiesced, assuming it as part of the job, he said.

“They were having a lot of cases of silicosis up in Elliot Lake in the uranium mines; this was supposed to be the cure for all,” Genoe said. “Turns out, it wasn't."

In the decades since the practice was disproven, hundreds of miners have developed a range of health issues, and work is ongoing to document their accounts and access compensation for their families.

Genoe’s experience mirrored those of the half-dozen former miners who shared their stories on Sept. 8 during a webinar hosted by New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.

The journal has published two articles written by Janice Martell, a worker advocate and miner’s daughter who in 2014 started a voluntary worker registry, the McIntyre Powder Project, which now counts nearly 600 members.

Martell’s registry aims to document the mining records, stories, and health histories of workers who were impacted by McIntyre Powder.

It was the second article — “Breathe Deep Boys: Voices of the McIntyre Powder Project Miners”, published in February 2022 — that inspired the webinar, which enabled miners to share their stories, in their own words.

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For miners like Allan Moyle, learning the truth about McIntyre Powder, decades after they’d already retired, felt a lot like a “betrayal.”

Moyle worked as a drift miner at the Dome underground gold mine in Timmins between 1971 and 1981, where he was also mandated to breathe in McIntyre Powder as a requirement for work.

A dirty, dusty environment at the best of times, Moyle recalled that his work clothes were so heavily caked in a combination of sweat, water and aluminum dust, “your coveralls would stand up. I wouldn’t have to pull them on; I’d just jump into them.”

Like Genoe, Moyle said workers were told they could be terminated if they didn’t ingest the powder. He distinctly recalls coughing up black phlegm after breathing it in.

It wasn’t until meeting Martell during a McIntyre Powder Project information session that he started to think more seriously about it and the impact it had had on him.

“At the end of the day, I left feeling violated, just understanding what had happened to the miners for all those years,” he said.

“The only other time I felt that way was after a break-in into my home; it's just that feeling of betrayal, or loss....”

"It wasn’t right. It wasn't the right thing to do, and we shouldn't have been forced to do it.”

Though mines stopped administering McIntyre Powder decades ago, Tee L. Guidotti, coauthor of “Breathe Deep Boys…”, said McIntyre Powder serves as a cautionary tale. And it would be a mistake to view it in a purely historical light.

An internationally recognized physician and consultant in occupational and environmental health and medicine, Guidotti said there are modern-day instances in which employers refuse to recognize occupational injury and defer fitness to work and rehabilitation.

For example, the incidence of non-fatal workplace injuries has “plummeted” in recent years, he said, because employers haven’t been reporting them.

“This still goes on,” he said. “In fact, south of the border, we have an abundance of data demonstrating that it is still going on, that injured workers are diverted away from medical care and recognition under OSHA (the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which recognizes occupational disease)... because they want to keep it off the books.”

In the case of McIntyre Powder, he noted, mining executives came up with what they thought would be a relatively low-cost “quick fix” to the widespread problem of silicosis, rather than examining the real issue, which was poor ventilation in mines.

Roger Genoe didn’t wait around to see what his future underground would hold.

After five years working in the mines, he had put in enough hours under Rio Algom’s apprenticeship program to earn his electrical ticket.

Keeping a promise he had made to his father, who was also an electrician working underground, Genoe took that ticket, gave his two weeks’ notice, and left the mines for good.

Now a Sudburian, Genoe still returns to Elliot Lake on occasion, revisiting the land where the Quirke headframe once stood, and his thoughts return to all the miners who died before their time, their bodies ravaged by disease that, in retrospect, could have resulted from their work underground.

“I hope this gets across to a lot of people,” he said of his message. “A lot of people out there have no idea as to what sorrow was brought to families….

“I just hope that a lot of the mines in the future will abide by a lot of this stuff that we're saying today, because it's terrible what they did to us.”