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New rules target BC’s deadliest workplace killer

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Every year on Jan. 5, mourners queue to lay a rose on a plaque in downtown Vancouver.

The memorial honours four carpenters who fell to their deaths 42 years ago while working on the Bentall IV tower.

But the ceremony memorializes all construction workers who die on the job in B.C., with each flower representing a construction worker who didn’t come home. Last year, there were 54.

And every year, a single substance is responsible for the largest number of deaths — asbestos. In the first 11 months of 2023, asbestos-related cancers and illnesses killed 18 workers in the province, all caused by exposure that happened decades ago.

Safety advocates say those exposures are still happening today, particularly in the burgeoning industry for removing asbestos from existing buildings.

The government is trying to change that. This month, B.C. became the first province in Canada to require workers who handle asbestos to undergo special training and force companies to hire approved asbestos removal businesses.

WorkSafeBC hopes the regulations, which came into effect Jan. 1, will improve safety standards and eliminate what advocates describe as an underground market of unscrupulous companies that cut corners by sending workers to handle asbestos without proper protective equipment or training.

Dan Jajic, business manager for International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 38, said the province’s trade unions welcome the new rules.

But he and other worker safety advocates say they also want to see a focus on enforcement, including tougher penalties for companies that break the rules and put workers and the public in danger.

“I’m not suggesting that all employers are bad actors, but [WorkSafeBC] brought this regulation because there’s a problem in the industry with regards to employers behaving responsibly,” Jajic said.

Toxic legacy

Before scientists knew it was a carcinogen, asbestos was used in products from paint and cement to brake pads in cars.

But its widest use was as insulation.

Lee Loftus, a third-generation insulator, remembers his father coming home from work with fibres of asbestos sticking to his clothes. Loftus now suffers from asbestosis, a chronic lung condition caused by the fibres in his lungs.

Today, Loftus said, workers are still being exposed to asbestos, often while removing the insulation that other workers put in decades ago.

Hundreds of companies in B.C. offer asbestos removal from buildings before demolition or renovation.

Not all of them are up to the same standards.

Since 2019, WorkSafeBC has issued 427 fines related to the improper handling of asbestos. Some fines were small, others mammoth. In 2022, the regulator discovered that a waste management company had failed to give its workers protective equipment while they were removing asbestos from a building in Kimberley that had been damaged by fire.

WorkSafeBC ended up imposing a fine of $710,488 on GFL Environmental, the most it has ever fined a company.

In a few cases, fines alone weren’t enough. In 2012, the Supreme Court of British Columbia found asbestos abatement contractor Arthur Moore guilty of contempt. Moore had been accused of endangering his employees, many allegedly recruited from drug use treatment centres.

WorkSafeBC has obtained 52 court injunctions preventing companies from operating after repeatedly violating safety rules. Nineteen of those injunctions were for asbestos abatement contractors.

Often, workers may not know they’re being exposed. Mary Lovelace, a director in WorkSafeBC’s prevention division, said asbestos is odourless. Fibres, once disturbed, can remain in the air for hours. And the actual symptoms of asbestosis may not manifest until years or decades after it is too late.

In December 2018, a government-commissioned report found that “the enforcement challenges and problems about unscrupulous contractors who break the rules and place their workers and the public at risk are so significant that a licensing scheme is necessary in order to provide an effective mechanism for prohibiting these contractors from engaging in this industry.”

Now, that system is finally in place.

New rules, public registry

Lovelace said asbestos abatement workers must be certified by a government-approved institution, to be run by a mix of unions, health and safety companies and employers.

The amount of training required differs depending on the worker’s role, but an in-person assessment is required for anyone involved in actually removing asbestos. Companies will be regularly reviewed to make sure their training is up to snuff.

Additionally, WorkSafeBC is now requiring asbestos abatement companies to be licensed by the government and listed on the Asbestos Abatement Licence Registry.

Otherwise, they could face fines.

Prime contractors on construction sites can only hire companies from that public registry to do abatement work. If they don’t, Lovelace said, those contractors could also face fines and other penalties.

And companies can be eliminated from the registry if inspectors find their standards aren’t measuring up, Lovelace added.

“Everyone has the ability now to see which employers are taking the right steps to ensure the safety of their workers, whereas previously, homeowners, contractors and others wouldn’t have had full visibility into the practices of the employer,” Lovelace said.

She’s also hopeful the public registry will “limit or eliminate” the ability of unscrupulous abatement companies to stay in business, since homeowners and contractors can freely search it online.

As of mid-January, Lovelace said, about 3,500 abatement workers had been certified and roughly 350 companies had signed up to join the registry.

“That hopefully will make it harder for these abatement contractors to even find people who want to do this kind of work if they want to do it under the radar,” Lovelace said.

Jajic said the province’s trade unions are happy there is a licensing system in place. But he argued employers shouldn’t be allowed to certify workers. He said that should be left to unions like his own.

“I am concerned that the diligence of employers who have the power to certify people... that the dollar gets in the way,” Jajic said.

Loftus, who was on WorkSafeBC’s board while the new regulations were developed, said the key now will be enforcing the new rules.

“Ninety-five per cent of people will pay to do it right, and they’re absolutely correct. But I don’t think it takes care of that other piece,” Loftus said.

Loftus argues the government should create a registry to track which buildings have asbestos. Saskatchewan, for example, has already created such a registry for government-owned properties.

Loftus also thinks there should be steeper penalties, including criminal charges, for companies and individuals who improperly dispose of asbestos.

“Does this mean the piles of asbestos that we find in laneways, in schoolyards or in shopping malls are going to stop? I don’t think so,” Loftus said of the new rules. “Because the disposal of asbestos material is expensive and it is not easy to do. It is easier to risk your life, your neighbour’s life and the lives of others.”

Jajic said the key to the success of the new regulations will be whether the illicit asbestos removal economy in B.C. is snuffed out.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Jajic said. “Whether it will be an effective tool to take those unscrupulous contractors out of the business is yet to be determined.”

— This story was originally published by The Tyee.

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