High priority for Marystown Shipyard cancer probe: officials

Workers' compensation officials in N.L. say they will thoroughly investigate complaints from 15 former shipyard workers who say their workplace gave them cancer.

Workers' compensation officials in Newfoundland and Labrador say they willthoroughly investigatecomplaints from 15 former shipyard workers who say their workplace gave them cancer.

Fifteen former workers at the Marystown Shipyard blame exposure to asbestos and toxic chemicals for leading to their cancer diagnoses.

The workers, backed by the Canadian Auto Workers union, have filed formal complaints with the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission.

"If there are workers who have gotten cancer because of where they worked and because of the work they did in the shipyard, somebody should take care of that," said Reg Anstey, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.

"There should be compensation."

The workers say the exposure led to incidences of lung, stomach and bowel cancers.

Proving that workplace conditions led directly to cancer, though, is often a difficult thing to do, and requires detailed medical histories and lifestyle assessments.

"The added complication is that the science isn't always clear," said Tom Mahoney, executive director of worker services with the commission.

"We do know with certain types of cancers that there are family factors. We know there are lifestyle factors and how do you separate those out from exposures in the workplace? Those become very, very difficult decisions to make."

Nonetheless, Mahoney said all of the claims will be investigated fully, and immediately.

"I am not able to comment on the validity of any particular claim [but] I will assure you that the full resources of the commission will be behind the evaluation of these claims for adjudication purposes," he said.

Anstey said the labour movement is fully behind the series of complaints.

"The whole question of industrial disease is the biggest single issue facing workers' compensation boards all across the country, and the big unions have been the primary movers and shakers of trying to get recognition on these issues," Anstey said.

The Marystown Shipyard opened in 1967, and has been a mainstay of the Burin Peninsula economy.The yard, which has had troubled times in recent years, has adapted to offshore engineering work in additional to conventional ship construction and repair.