If you developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after working as an underground miner in Northern Ontario and later submitted a compensation claim to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Sherry Mongeau wants to hear from you.
Mongeau is seeking voluntary participants to take part in a research study that will contribute to her PhD in occupational illness through the School of Rural and Northern Health at Laurentian University.
As a qualitative researcher, Mongeau deals not in numbers, but in anecdotes. And she’s hopeful there are participants across the North who will be willing to share their stories.
“Really, this is about the participants’ stories, their journey through COPD as an occupational illness, and the compensation process,” Mongeau said.
COPD is the name given to a group of lung diseases that make it difficult for people to breathe because their airways have been narrowed. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are among them.
Though there is research that clearly demonstrates the connection between exposure to workplace toxins and the development of COPD, Mongeau said, there’s still a low level of awareness about the condition within the general public.
Whereas it’s fairly straightforward to get a claim approved for something like a broken leg, successfully submitting a claim for COPD is more complicated, she added.
Miners often have to meet a threshold for exposure, something that can be hard to measure, especially in retrospect.
Too often, COPD is blamed on a history of smoking, so other potential causes, like workplace exposure, aren’t fully examined.
“If you talk to (miners) about what it was like to work in the mining industry, it’s very apparent that they were inhaling many different things that they shouldn’t have, but it was their job and they went to work to put food on the table and a roof over the family’s head,” Mongeau said.
“So they weren’t thinking about what was going to be long-term effects of what was happening while they were working underground.”
Because COPD is a progressive illness, it’s often not until their retirement years that sufferers experience the full impact of the disease, she added.
Occupational illness has been a long-time passion for Mongeau, who also completed her master’s degree in occupational illness; specifically, she examined lower back injuries in miners working in the mining industry in Sudbury.
Two of her papers on the subject were published in peer-reviewed journals, and she recently presented her findings at the 2021 Virtual Mining Health and Safety Conference hosted by Workplace Safety North on April 14.
Mongeau said hearing about the miners’ realities was a “powerful” experience.
“You have to remember that these are, and continue to be, extremely proud men – it can be women, but for the most part it’s men,” she said.
“They’re proud of the fact that they were able to take care of their families and that they were able to support their families, so for them to share these really detailed, important stories, it truly meant a lot to me.”
For the study on COPD and WSIB claims, Mongeau is seeking between 15 and 20 miners to participate in a phone interview, which can average 60 to 90 minutes in length.
All information will remain anonymous, and their participation will not impact the WSIB claim process, she emphasized.
Mongeau will ask participants a series of questions that explore their role in the mining industry, how they were diagnosed with COPD, and what it’s like to live with the disease, as well as what it’s been like submitting a claim to WSIB.
It will include a look at not just the physical difficulties associated with COPD, but also the psychological and emotional effects of the illness, Mongeau said.
“We know that if you can’t breathe, you’re anxious, and if you’re anxious you can’t breathe,” she said. “So we know that there are some psychological impacts.”
Mongeau would like to hear from prospective participants by April 30, and she’s aiming to have her thesis defended by May 2022.