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'The drifts were blue': miners share stories of diesel exposure

Sudbury Steelworkers lead project to reduce diesel particulate exposure underground
Miners Rick Simon (left) and Len Demers are former coworkers who attended a Dec. 8 information session hosted by the United Steelworkers Local 6500 about the harmful effects of diesel particulate on underground mine workers.

Through his 40-year career in mining, Rick Simon has racked up a lifetime of experience and memories working at operations across Ontario.

Starting his career as a field mechanic in the Elliot Lake uranium mines in 1978, Simon later spent 16 years at Hemlo Mine in Marathon before moving on to Levack Mine in Sudbury. He even did a stint at Nunavik Mine in Northern Quebec, and eventually added mining and shaft work to his résumé, before rounding out his career in a supervisory role.

The industry has experienced a lot of change in that time, most of it good, Simon said. But one thing that still plagues him is the concentration of diesel exhaust that miners like him inhale every day on the job.

“I can remember days when we were working down there and the drifts were just blue with this shit,” Simon recalled during a Dec. 8 information night hosted at the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6500 hall in Sudbury.

“I've been in areas where it was so blue, you couldn't get in there, but you were told, ‘Let's go, Rick. Gotta go muck that round or gotta fix that machine,’ whatever it may be."

Looking back, Simon wonders if his exposure to diesel particulate — miniscule bits of soot, metal and other toxic elements — has contributed to the health issues he's experiencing today.

“All these years, people like myself who worked through these conditions, there was never any way of measuring how much I actually was exposed to.”

Ontario legislation currently says levels of diesel particulate measuring 400 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3) are acceptable underground.

According to the USW, that's far higher than the 20 μg/m3 recommended by both Carcinogen Exposure Canada (CAREX) and the Occupational Cancer Research Centre

And they believe it's time for a change.

“Not wearing your seatbelt is socially unacceptable, drinking and driving is socially unacceptable, and I want us to keep on working to make contracting occupational diseases and cancers at work socially unacceptable,” said Nick Larochelle, president of Local 6500.

Data collected by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) going back to the late 1980s has suggested diesel particulate is a human carcinogen, and the health impacts are numerous.

In a matter of hours or days, exposed workers can experience dizziness or headaches, produce a wet cough or phlegm, or have an allergic or asthmatic reaction.

Over time, however, the severity of symptoms dramatically increases — illnesses can include lung and bladder cancers, cardiovascular disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema, and the worsening of asthma or diabetic comorbidities.

George Flagler, a master's student in interdisciplinary health at Laurentian University and a graduate student at the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH), said it's the diesel particulate, versus the exhaust, that can have especially devastating effects on a person's health.

“It's those smallest particles that really go deep into the lungs and penetrate, that enter the bloodstream, travel to the heart and other organs,” he said.

“The smallest particles are the most harmful, because they enter in through the lungs and travel through the rest of the body.”

The USW, in collaboration with CROSH and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), is now embarking on the USW Diesel Particulate Project, a lobbying effort to get the Ontario government to lower the acceptable limit for diesel particulate exposure underground.

Currently, Ontario's is among the highest acceptable levels in jurisdictions across the globe, Flagler said.

Saskatchewan's acceptable level is 160 μg/m3, as is the United States’, while the European Union's sits at 50 μg/m3. Finland, meanwhile, is recommending 20 μg/m3, which is where the USW wants Ontario’s levels to be.

Efforts in the industry to clean up diesel exhaust underground largely revolve around replacing diesel-powered fleets with battery electric vehicles (BEV).

But Sean Staddon, Local 6500 WSIB's worker representative, believes that many mines won't “go electric” for another 20 or 30 years.

Too many diesel-powered vehicles still have a lot of life left in them, and the infrastructure of BEVs isn't yet sophisticated enough for many mines to make the switch.

“Diesel isn't going anywhere any time soon,” he said.

Diesel particulate filters — an added component that can be bolted onto an existing machine — have been on the market for years, Staddon said, and are very effective at reducing the amount of diesel particulate in the air — as much as 92 per cent, according to one estimate.

Using the filters, upgrading to newer diesel technology, and keeping up with regular machine maintenance can all go a long way to reducing diesel particulate underground, Staddon said.

But unless it's mandated by the government, he said, mining companies won't voluntarily make the switch, which could be costly.

That's why the USW believes the direction on this issue needs to come from the government.

In recent years, the USW has communicated its concerns to the Ministry of Labour, and current minister Monte McNaughton, to no avail, Staddon said.

Now, the union is circulating a petition and collecting case files of miners who have been exposed to diesel particulate underground. Staddon said the hope is that by presenting a unified front, the provincial government will no longer be able to ignore a problem he said has been germinating for decades.

“This project is naturally a progression of a lobbying effort and an education effort with our partners from CROSH to build up community presence to let them know the people of Sudbury, and the people in Timmins, and the people in Thunder Bay are no longer going to get poisoned underground,” Staddon said.

That's why Rick Simon showed up to lend his support to the cause on Thursday night.

As the years pass by, he said, he loses more friends and former colleagues to workplace-related illness.

It started with his father, who died of lung cancer, followed by his brother-in-law, who also died of the disease.

Now, as he faces his own health issues, he can't help but wonder if his turn is coming.

“That's the point I'm at in my life right now,” Simon said.

“You look around and who's all the ones that are going before you and wondering, ‘Well, that's going to be me pretty soon, because of where I’ve been and what I've done.”