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Workers’ rights advocate calls for overhaul of WSIB

McIntyre Powder Project founder wants independent reviews on occupational disease policy

An advocate for workers’ rights is calling on the province to establish an independent body to adjudicate fair and efficient evaluations on claims associated with work-related illness.

Janice Martell of Sudbury believes the current compensation system, which is overseen by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), is ineffective and should be entirely overhauled.

“They have a duty to look at what the evidence is telling us and to adjudicate fairly, transparently, and not what is going to please our employers,” she said. “They are failing miserably with respect to occupational diseases and that needs to be removed from them.”

Martell founded the McIntyre Powder Project in 2015 to gather information on miners who had been intentionally exposed to McIntyre Powder while working in underground mines between 1943 and 1980.

She and others suspect the fine aluminum dust, created by executives at McIntyre Porcupine Mines in Timmins as a preventive measure against silicosis, is the cause of various respiratory and neurological illnesses experienced by miners who had to breathe in the powder at the start of every shift.

One such miner is Martell’s father, Jim Hobbs, who died in May, 2017, of Parkinson’s disease.

As part of her research, Martell successfully submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to the WSIB in 2018 and was sent 1,871 documents relating to McIntyre Powder.

Martell, who is currently working with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), said it gave her great insight into what she considers the WSIB’s shortcomings.

In particular, she’s critical of what she believes is the organization’s emphasis on mitigating risk and controlling its public image, rather than focusing on robust policy reviews and scientific research.

“There are good people working at the WSIB – I have seen that evidence,” Martell said. “But it's this ‘Game of Thrones’ structure of people in high bureaucratic, complex management systems who are really focused on ‘how do we control our costs, how do we maintain our image.’

“They need to come out and have real conversations and really look at this, not just ‘how do we mitigate our risk?’”

Martell contends that the claim evaluations, and the policies that guide them, are based on outdated information. Only three known studies have ever been conducted on the impacts of McIntyre Powder – in the 1950s, 1990 and 2013.

Yet new research conducted by Laurentian University PhD candidate Andrew Zarnke suggests that McIntyre Powder was ground into nanoparticulate size, which would allow it to travel through the bloodstream to anywhere in the body, including to the brain, she noted.

Further research exists, Martell said, showing a correlation between fine particulate dust and cardiovascular disease.

It’s this type of new scientific evidence that should be considered in evaluating the claims, Martell said.

“My position has always been you need to study these miners, you need to study this kind of exposure, because it's very different than just general occupational aluminum exposure,” she said. “But yet they're using that (Intrinsik) study to deny claims, and that's right in the decision letters.”

The WSIB responded to Martell’s claims in an emailed statement to Northern Ontario Business.

“We want everyone to receive the services and benefits they deserve,” the organization said in a statement provided by public affairs manager Christine Arnott.

“We know that when a loved one becomes sick or hurt, it’s natural to ask why. We ask that question, too, and we have to base our decisions on scientific evidence.”

As new information emerges, the WSIB has started to tweak its approach to evaluating aluminum-related claims.

In 2017, the organization overturned a policy that automatically denied claims related to aluminum exposure. It had been in effect for 20 years.

At the same time, the organization launched a new investigation into potential links between neurological disease and McIntyre Powder.

“Unfortunately, conclusive scientific evidence linking McIntyre Powder to neurological diseases does not exist, but it’s a question we all agree needs to be answered. That’s why we commissioned new research from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC), based at Cancer Care Ontario,” the WSIB said.

“This research will provide us with a better understanding of any relationship between the use of McIntyre Powder in Ontario mines and the development of neurological conditions in miners exposed to it. We anticipate the results of the study will be available in late 2019.”

The WSIB has also started the process of re-examining aluminum-related claims for chronic pulmonary obstruction disease (COPD), which includes a range of respiratory diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In its emailed statement, the WSIB recognized Martell’s work, committing to continue looking into the legacy of McIntyre Powder.

“Janice Martell and others have brought a lot of passion and energy to exploring the effects of McIntyre Powder and we will keep working with her and all families involved to find the answers together,” the statement said.

Martell maintains that an independent body is needed to manage the claims process, led by a scientific team like the one at OHCOW currently evaluating miners’ health records.

She envisions something akin to the Industrial Disease Standards Panel, which was responsible for occupational disease claims evaluations until 1997 when it was then revoked by the Mike Harris government.

Such a group should look at the science only, and any recommendations made by the body – additional testing, a review of policies – should be binding, she suggested.

But unless and until any changes are made, Martell urges miners who inhaled McIntyre Powder to be tested for conditions like COPD, and resubmit claims, as they could be newly eligible for compensation.

Nearly two years after her father’s death, Martell is resubmitting a claim on his behalf, based on his Parkinson's diagnosis, and submitting a new claim based on evidence of pulmonary emphysema that was found in his lungs following an autopsy.

“I’m not just asking people to do things that I’m not willing to do myself,” she said.

“It’s going to be a battle, but I’m going to keep going until the system changes, until there is a massive overhaul of the WSIB system.”