Parking attendants who work in booths next to an exhaust vent used by a McDonald's in Vancouver said they are literally sick after years of breathing foul fumes from the restaurant.
"The headaches kicked in within an hour of showing up," said Jim Mulally, who worked as an attendant in the parkade for two years. "Because of dizziness, because of disorientation, I actually made a mistake on the job. I collected the wrong change from a customer and I got in trouble for it."
The attendants work for EasyPark Vancouver, which manages a city-owned underground parkade in the downtown library square complex. The city also leases space in the building to McDonald's and other restaurants. The ventilation system blows restaurant exhaust into the enclosed parking lot, instead of outside the building.
Odour violates law, provincial order says
In September, WorkSafeBC, the province's worker compensation board, concluded the situation is a violation of occupational health and safety regulations governing "objectionable odours" in the workplace.
"The odour from these vents … was obnoxious," the report states. "In addition, grease smoke and conceivably other compounds formed from the cooking process were entering and lingering within this enclosed work area."
The board ordered the city to reroute the vent outside. The city has since asked for that order to be rescinded.
City officials have "been throwing up the brick wall for a long time," said Mulally. "The building design is the problem in the beginning. Ventilation systems are not supposed to vent into workplaces."
He added, "The parking lot makes so much money there's just got to be revenue there that they could use to fix this problem."
City documents show it has been receiving complaints about the exhaust vent since 2001, but it puts the responsibility back on the McDonald's and Kamiya Sushi, another restaurant that also vents its kitchen exhaust into the parkade.
"It is the City of Vancouver's position that the restaurant lease holders are responsible for generating the odours and grease and they are responsible for employing control methods to minimize their emissions," said a Nov. 26, 2008 letter from the city to WorkSafeBC.
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The letter also states, "The odour of fried food is measurably better than the odours of rotting garbage, feces, animal rendering … or other industrial processes."
"Better than rotting garbage? That makes me angry," said Mulally. "The people that wrote this appeal were sitting in a clean office and it's just really not fair that they are not exposed to the reality of it all."
Mulally said the McDonald's vent is particularly offensive because of all the grease generated by the deep fryers. In 2003, the restaurant installed a new filtration system, but he said that did not fix the problem.
'McDonald's needs to be gone,' worker says
"Whether there is a filter or not, it is a violation of the health code to be pumping this stuff into a workplace," said Mulally. "I think that the only practical option is McDonald's needs to be gone."
McDonald's Canada refused a request for an interview. It sent a statement which said it takes the situation "very seriously," but because it "is currently between the City of Vancouver and WorkSafeBC, it would be inappropriate … to comment further."
According to the city, McDonald's lease is up for renewal in 2010, with an option to renew for another five years. The restaurant pays approximately $45,000 per year to lease the space.
Mulally said that because of his serious concerns over the vents, he signed on as the health and safety representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 1004. He said several other workers have reported chronic sinus and lung conditions.
A current parkade attendant, who doesn't want to be named because he fears losing his job, wrote to CBC News: "Illnesses range from headaches, itchy eyes, sinus problems and asthma to … lung infections. The whistle needs to be blown and the city made responsible."
Tanya Nahal, who worked in the parkade for four years, wrote, "Customers were always asking me how I could stand the fumes and saying that something should be done about it. I complained so much to the union and management … and nothing was ever done."
"I'm fed up with the danger, with the uncleanliness — and it's not safe either. I'm just fed up with it," Mulally said.
Three workers are exposed full time — over 10-hour shifts — and another five work there occasionally, he said. He estimated a dozen workers have complained of health problems over the years.
Cancer risk elevated, says health authority
Domenic Losito, regional director of health protection for Vancouver Coastal Health, said studies indicate the cooking oil particles coming out of the vent could increase the workers' risk of developing cancer.
"There is a slightly elevated risk of cancer from those fine particles that get into the lungs," Losito said. "So, the last place you want to exhaust any grease-laden vapour is into an occupied space."
Losito believes the city should just fix the vent, instead of fighting the WorkSafeBC order.
"I think we should all be embarrassed … that its taken this long to get it to the point where there is an order from WorkSafeBC and hopefully they [the city] follow through on that order," he said. "They're making good money. I think they need to invest in the health of their workers."
As a result of CBC's Go Public story, the City of Vancouver now says it will remove all the workers from the parking garage for three days while it tests the ventilation system and the air for carcinogens.
City spokesperson Jennifer Young said Tuesday the city had objected to the WorkSafeBC order because it talked about an objectionable odour, not about more serious health risks. Now that Vancouver Coastal Health has identified a possible cancer risk, she said, the parkade booths will be closed until testing is completed.
When asked what he thinks of city-paid workers breathing in bad air for years, Mayor Gregor Robertson responded, "Well, doesn't sound like a positive to me. I don't know why it's taken so many years. I'm going to find out from city staff what's happening — the status of it — and why there's a difference of opinion between the city and WorkSafeBC."
Mulally has mixed reactions to the city's move. He said attendants working at the downtown library square complex are now worried they may lose their jobs, but, he added, it's a victory overall.
Mulally said he's happy the ventilation system has finally been identified for what it is — a health hazard.