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Emotional ceremony honours workers who have died from occupational disease

Widows and family members gather at Sudbury's Steelworkers Hall to remember their loved ones

Estelle Lemieux's emotions are still very raw when she talks about her husband, Marcel Lemieux, who died July 28 from lung cancer.

Marcel was diagnosed three years ago, and the cancer caused a lot of damage to his body, she said. He was 76 when he died. The couple had been married for 56 years.

His name was among the 45 called out during the United Steelworkers Local 6500 memorial ceremony in Sudbury on Sept. 26. The ceremony is held to honour 6500 members who have died due to occupational disease.

Marcel was a scoop tram operator at Frood-Stobie Mine for 30 years before he retired in 1999. Very soon after he retired, all kinds of illnesses started to manifest, said Estelle.

“It was one thing after another,” she said. “Once he retired, it never stopped, there was always something. This was a very nice day.”

Estelle's daughters, Julie Luoma and Angele Vis, and sons, Guy and Andre Lemieux, attended with her.

“This means he's not anonymous,” said Luoma.

Estelle said her husband was a hard worker who took pride in all that he did.

J.P. Mrochek, the WSIB worker representative for Local 6500, said the event was not only to honour the people who have died, but to also pay respect to their widows and understand the significance of their loss.

The City of Greater Sudbury officially unveiled in 2012 the Leo Gerard Memorial Park in the community of Val Caron. A board was erected bearing the name of people who died in the workplace.

“We thought it was important to start recognizing the people who have died from occupational disease,” said Mrochek. “There's now another board at the park, and it bears the names of those we know of who have died from occupational disease.”

Mrochek's job is to help widows navigate the WSIB system.

“It's long and tedious, and believe it or not, there are people who give up,” he said. 

Two widows attending the Sept. 26 ceremony had their claims approved this year, but their loves ones died in 2011 and 2012, Mrochek said.

“It's a gruelling process by design. It normally takes nine to 12 months for WSIB to reach a decision on the claim. If it's positive, that's great. If not, it can take years to come to a conclusion.”

WSIB claims dealing with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease, are typically handled in that timeframe, but if the claim involves lung cancer, and the worker was a smoker, or worked with asbestos or other known carcinogens, those cases are much more difficult to adjudicate, and most often are dismissed, he said.

“That's when we start the appeal process, and that process takes two years. If it's denied there, then we can bring it to a tribunal, and that process can take even longer,” Mrochek said. “Eight years for an occupational disease, I'm embarrassed to say, is common if the claim is denied from the very start.”

The process takes a toll on the widows emotionally, because they have to relive that loss every time there is a negative decision, Mrochek said.

“It's a terrible system, but it's what we have in Ontario, and there's no doubt it needs to be improved.”

In a 10-year timeframe, from 2007 to 2017, there were 26 miners who died on the job in Ontario mines. In that same timeframe, there were only 196 claims approved for occupational disease.

“That's outrageous,” Mrochek said. “The number of claims that are denied far outnumber the claims that are approved.”

When there's a workplace fatality, the entire community takes notice. The work stops, the company investigates, the union investigates, the Ministry of Labour investigates, and then there's an inquest, which leads to change in the workplace to prevent that fatality from happening again.

In the occupational disease world, however, nothing like that happens.

“These workers just die, and there's no attention,” Mrochek said. 

The main reason is, it usually happens years later, but it's also because it's a medical condition, he said. Lung cancer is a medical condition, and it's much more difficult to connect the cancer to exposure in the workplace.”

The 45 names read out in Thursday's memorial service are a fraction of the people who have died as a result of occupational disease. 

“There are a lot of workers who may have an illness, but might not think it's work-related, or even a widow whose husband died, but they don't know it may have been a result of exposure in the workplace,” Mrochek said.

Leo Gerard, former USW international president, said the fight against WSIB can never stop.

“Claims are still being denied by WSIB, and it's their belief that if they deny enough, people will just go away,” Gerard said. “We aren't going away. This union never stops fighting. You should not have to give your life to go to work.”

He said the fact so many people attended the ceremony is an inspiration to the union to continue doing what it can.