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Provincial advocacy group calling for overhaul of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board

Occupational Disease Reform Alliance includes Northern Ontario disease clusters
Miners were forced to inhale McIntyre Powder, finely ground aluminum, as a requirement of employment at selected mines across Northern Ontario between 1943 and 1980.

A newly formed coalition of workers’ rights advocates from across the province is calling for a major overhaul of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

The Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA), introduced on Oct. 29, wants the WSIB to formally recognize occupational disease and make the compensation claims process easier and faster to navigate, while being fairer to workers.

Its launch comes on the heels of the province’s Oct. 6 announcement proposing new legislation that, if passed, could return nearly $3 billion from the WSIB’s reserve funds to employers.

Sue James, who chairs the alliance, believes those funds would be better spent on settling outstanding workers' compensation claims, some of which have been in limbo for years or decades.

In some cases, workers have died before their claim can be reviewed.

“Our alliance of workers, advocates and families has come together to shed light on the epidemic of occupational disease in our communities across Ontario and the absolute failure of our government and the WSIB to address this effectively,” James said during the online launch.

“We all know the outcomes; we’ve seen them – literally, thousands of workers annually will die from occupational disease.”

Nine worker groups are represented by the alliance, including four from Northern Ontario. Group members have developed, or watched family members develop, various illnesses belonging to the same disease clusters after working in industrial settings.

In the North, that includes miners who inhaled McIntyre Powder at various mines across the region between 1943 and 1980; construction workers who built a boiler at the Weyerhaeuser pulp and paper mill in Dryden in the early 2000s; steel mill workers in Sault Ste. Marie; and former employees of now-closed Neelon Casting, which made brake parts, in Sudbury.

Beyond Northern Ontario, the groups include workers from Chemical Valley in Sarnia and General Electric in Peterborough, rubber workers from Kitchener-Waterloo, and workers from Pebra/Ventra Plastics in Peterborough.

In her petition for reform, James appealed directly to Labour Minister Monte McNaughton to adopt four specific changes to the current system.

“Quite frankly, this work… should have been done 20 years ago, an investigation into the patterns of disease that have struck our entire province,” James said.

“We are calling on the minister of labour to implement and enforce our four demands to reform our compensation system.”

They include:

  • granting entitlement for occupational diseases when they exceed the level circulating in a community;
  • using available evidence of occupational disease in the workplace – including that gathered by workers and communities – as the standard for evaluating claims;
  • expanding the list of compensable diseases that are presumed to be work-related, and possibly using the firefighters presumption list as a template; and
  • recognizing claims diseases resulting from multiple exposures, carcinogens and irritants, rather than focusing on a single exposure or occupation.

“We need to have reform for these people that would enhance and truly reflect the needs and outcomes of workers and families through a fair, just and timely process,” James said.

Minister McNaughton was not made available for an interview.

However, in a written statement, the Ministry of Labour referred comment back to the WSIB.

"The WSIB is developing an Occupational Disease Strategy to achieve a more responsive and sustainable approach to occupational disease policy and decision-making," the statement reads.

"The ministry is reviewing what the organization raised today. However, the WSIB is an independent arm's-length agency, who have sole jurisdiction over how compensation claims are processed and awarded. Further questions on this are better directed to them.

"Further, under Prevention Works, the ministry and occupational health and safety system partners, including Dr. Paul Demers and the WSIB, have been developing a plan for occupational illness prevention to help improve the recognition of occupational illnesses and control of workplace hazards that can lead to occupational illnesses."

Janice Martell, a Sudbury-based worker advocate, said the coming together of workers, their families and advocates to call for change has been a “powerful” experience.

“I felt this isn’t just one daughter of one miner in Northern Ontario standing on a soapbox,” Martell said in an interview.

“This is all of these workers and widows, and this is just a start.”

Martell began the McIntyre Powder Project in 2014 after her father, Jim Hobbs, developed Parkinson’s following years of inhaling finely ground aluminum dust while working as a miner.

To date, her work documenting the history of McIntyre Powder’s use in mines, and the medical histories of miners who have been impacted, has helped hundreds of miners and their families access millions of dollars in compensation that they had formerly been denied.

“Occupational disease is a killer. It slays our workers, it slays our family members, and it’s not recognized in the same way as a mine collapse or a fire at work or something like that that takes a person’s life immediately,” she said.

“These are slow deaths, and they’re painful, tragic deaths, and the whole WSIB system needs an overhaul.”

Martell and advocates like her contend the research and evidence-gathering they’re undertaking to make links between workplace toxins and occupational disease should be the responsibility of the WSIB.

She offers the example of a longstanding WSIB policy to automatically reject worker compensation claims that cited McIntyre Powder as a cause of neurological disease in miners who had been exposed at work.

After public outcry, led in large part by Martell’s work, the WSIB ordered a review of the policy.

In 2020, the report compiled by Dr. Paul Demers provided evidence of a link between aluminum exposure and an increased risk of miners developing Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other motor neuron conditions compared to the general population.

As a result, the WSIB rescinded its policy, which had been in effect, without review, for 19 years.

“They weren’t looking at any of these things until the families had to stand up and publicly shame them by highlighting these stories and highlighting the work that we can do with no funding,” Martell said.

“I would be embarrassed if I were in their shoes of the WSIB not doing this work.”

Since she began advocating on behalf of Northern Ontario miners, Martell conservatively estimates they’ve collectively received about $6.4 million in compensation, with another $600,000 in ongoing benefits annually awarded to widows and family members.

But for many, the compensation is bittersweet, Martell said.

Receiving “a couple hundred thousand dollars” now didn’t save their loved one from dying of occupational disease, or make their lives easier while living through the illness, she noted.

And that, she said, is why the work of the alliance is important.

“We’re trying to carve that path for the next ones, so that you don’t have widows who have to wait for years and decades to get justice, or never get justice, or die.”