One of Canada's leading experts on asbestos says the province should aggressively search for former employees of a WR Grace vermiculite processing plant in Winnipeg to warn them of health hazards they faced on the job.

Several former employees of WR Grace in the United States have died from asbestos-related illnesses from working in the company's Libby, Montana mine and in processing plants across the country. Others in the U.S. are suing the company after becoming ill from asbestos exposure.

Seven WR Grace executives have been indicted for allegedly trying to conceal that its products were contaminated with asbestos, which has led to a call in Canada for the government to take responsibility for workers here.

Jim Brophy, head of the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers in Sarnia, has been tracking asbestos-related illnesses related to WR Grace across the country. Brophy has serious concerns about workers who were exposed to asbestos while employed at a WR Grace plant in Winnipeg.

The company has admitted it popped asbestos-laden vermiculite to make insulation here until the early 1990s. Brophy says Manitoba's Workers Compensation Board isn't taking the matter seriously enough.

"There should be a public notification that any workers that were employed at WR Grace in Manitoba from such and such a period, who developed certain respiratory diseases, should immediately notify the board," he says.

No search for workers planned

Dennis Nikkel, spokesman for Manitoba Workplace, Safety and Health, says – based on conversations with WR Grace and an inspection of its current plant – the province is confident Manitoba workers were protected.

"We have been in touch with the Workers Compensation Board here in Winnipeg and they have indicated to us that they have not received any claims from WR Grace employees," he says.

"Based on the information we have right now of how they were protecting their workers, and the fact that the compensation board hasn't received any claims – initially at least – we're fairly confident that workers were protected."

Brophy doesn't buy that argument. He says it's very likely workers never reported their illnesses to the compensation board. Brophy says workers didn't know much about how to handle asbestos thirty years ago, and he says their families may also have been exposed to asbestos fibres from clothing.

"It's almost certain that there are people that have developed these diseases. Some of them have died from them and some of them may still contract them," he says.

Nikkel admits the province has no idea how many people worked at the local WR Grace plant during the time it processed the contaminated vermiculite, but he says the province has no plans to search for former workers.

Nikkel says the province isn't planning any further action, although that may change if any new claims from former WR Grace employees are filed with the Workers Compensation Board.