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Asbestos main cause of rising workplace deaths

Wednesday  »  December 13  »  2006




Eric Beauchesne

The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nearly five Canadians, on average, died every working day last year from a work-related accident or illness, according to a report that expresses "grave concern" that such deaths are rising, not falling, as they are in most other industrialized countries.

"We have also linked the increase in workplace deaths in Canada to asbestos exposure," says the Centre for the Study of Living Standards report, released today, which is critical of Canada's continued mining, use, and export of a substance many countries have banned.

Canada earlier this year reportedly blocked efforts by other nations to have asbestos placed on an international list of banned substances. Quebec is the only province that still produces asbestos and that output is mostly exported to underdeveloped countries.

Asbestos-related deaths accounted for 62 per cent of those from occupational diseases and 30 per cent of total workplace fatalities in 2004, the most recent year for which there are full figures, the report says.

"The increased fatality rate from asbestos, up from 0.4 per 100,000 workers in 1996 to 1.8 in 2004, accounted for the lion's share of the increased incidence from occupational disease," it says.

It warns that while most of the deaths due to asbestos date back to exposure before the implementation of stricter controls, the number of work-related deaths due to the substance has still not likely peaked.

NDP MP Pat Martin, a former asbestos miner, expressed shock at the increase in workplace deaths and the role of asbestos in that increase, and anger at the Canadian government's support for the asbestos industry.

"Asbestos is the greatest industrial killer the world has ever known," said the Manitoba MP, who still undergoes annual tests on his scarred lungs.

"And Canada is in complete denial of the health risks."

The Quebec asbestos mines are mostly located in economically depressed areas.

"We're still the second-largest producer and exporter of asbestos in the world but we won't say 'boo' because all the mines are in Quebec," Mr. Martin said. "It's appalling."

The industry is a money loser but is subsidized by the federal government, a subsidy which Mr. Martin said was just doubled. According to government documents, federal payments to the Asbestos Institute rose to $250,000 this fiscal year from $125,000 last year.

The contribution is to "foster the international implementation of the safe and responsible use of chrysotile asbestos." A call to the office of Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn was not returned yesterday.

The report, meanwhile, notes that 557, or 50.8 per cent of the deaths, were from occupational diseases, and 491 or 44.8 per cent were from accidents.

Information collected by the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada reveals 1,097 workplace fatalities in Canada in 2005, up from 758 in 1993, the report says. The incidence of such work-related deaths has also increased over that period to 6.8 per 100,000 last year from 5.9 in 1993.

"This upward trend is disturbing," it says. "It lies in contrast to a decline in the rate in the 1976-1993 period in Canada and to a fall in almost all other OECD countries over the 1993-2003 period."

"As Canadians work on average 230 days per year, this means that there were nearly five work-related deaths per work day in this country," it said.

The rate is "unacceptably high," it says, adding that "Canada can do much better."

The increase in the incidence of workplace deaths was almost entirely driven by an increase in occupational diseases, although workplace fatalities also rose, which may reflect an increase in the proportion of workers in high-risk industries such as construction, it says.

International figures are not fully comparable because, unlike Canada, some countries don't include occupational deaths, or put time limits on the ones they include, and some don't include traffic accidents while on the job.

"Nevertheless, even if one fully adjusted for definitional differences, it is very unlikely that Canada would emerge as a low workplace fatality country relative to its peers," it says.

If one compares only the workplace fatality rate from accidents, the latest figures suggest the United States, with 4.0 per 100,000, has a higher rate than Canada's 3.0, it says.

"However, a comparison of trends ... shows greater improvement in the United States than Canada," it says, noting the rate in the U.S. has fallen while the rate here has edged up.

And the rate in Canada was well above that in nine other industrial countries, it adds.

Other findings include:

- The most dangerous industry is fishing and trapping with 52 fatalities per 100,000 workers, followed by mining, quarrying and oil rigging at 46.9; logging and forestry at 33.3; and construction at 20.2.

- The least dangerous industry was finance and insurance with only 0.3 fatalities per 100,000.

- The most dangerous occupations are the trades, transport and equipment operators, and related occupations with 21.3 workplace deaths per 100,000 workers, followed by those unique to the primary industries, at 16.9, and those involved in processing, manufacturing, and utilities at 8.2, while all other major group occupations had a fatality rate less than three per 100,000.

- Men, with 12.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, are 30 times more likely to die on the job than women.

- Older workers are also much more likely to experience a workplace-related fatality (114.8 per 100,000 for those aged 65 and over) than younger workers.

- Newfoundland has by far the highest provincial rate of workplace fatalities with 11.7 per 100,000, which is nearly double the national average, and a situation which prevailed throughout the 1993-2005 period. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta had the next highest rates, while Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, and New Brunswick had the lowest.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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