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Reduce diesel particulate exposure in mines, urges union

United Steelworkers project lobbying province for lower acceptable threshold

A campaign is underway to make mines safer for workers who inhale diesel fumes while on the job.

The United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6500, which is based in Sudbury, has launched the USW Diesel Particulate Project in partnership with the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) at Laurentian University, and Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW).

Under the initiative, the USW is calling for the province to adjust the allowable limit of diesel particulate that mine workers can be exposed to before their health is compromised.

Diesel fumes are composed of gas and particles, which can enter the lungs and travel through the body.

Inhaling high levels of diesel fumes can lead to headaches; dizziness; eye, nose and throat irritation; wet cough and phlegm; running nose and allergy symptoms; and asthma attacks.

Over time, extended exposure can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema, onset or worsening of asthma, and worsening of diabetic comorbidities.

Currently, under Ontario law, the occupational exposure limit (OEL) is 400 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3), a figure the USW calls the highest in Canada.

The union wants to see that number lowered to 20 μg/m3, which is the level recommended by both Carcinogen Exposure Canada (CAREX) and the Occupational Cancer Research Centre. 

“Occupational disease and fatalities are underrecognized,” Nick Larochelle, president of USW Local 6500, said in a news release.

“We know that diesel particulate can cause lung cancer, and we know that miners have higher rates of lung cancer compared to other workers.

“The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development needs to act to lower the OEL for diesel in mining to prevent these work-related fatalities.”

The campaign has received support from Janice Martell, who founded the McIntyre Powder Project.

Since 2014, Martell has collected information about McIntyre Powder, a finely ground aluminum dust created by mine executives in the 1940s, and its impact on miners who were forced to inhale it as a condition of employment while working in mines across Northern Ontario, Canada and in other parts of the world.

In 2020, the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) found that McIntyre Powder was a direct cause of Parkinson’s disease in miners who developed the illness after being exposed to the powder.

Martell’s own father, Jim Hobbs, who was exposed to McIntyre Powder during his career in mining, died of the disease in 2017.

“I strongly encourage everyone to support the USW Diesel Particulate Project,” Martell said in a release.

“Based on the current occupational exposure limit, mine workers can be exposed to 20 times more diesel particulate than the scientifically recommended level. Workers are urged to fill out exposure forms to protect their health.”

On Dec. 8, the USW will host an information session at the USW hall in Sudbury for workers who may have been impacted by the inhalation of diesel fumes.

There, representatives will provide educational information and help workers fill out WSIB compensation claims.

The doors open at 6 p.m., and an overview of the campaign will start at 7 p.m.

More information about the campaign is available here.