Government workers at the Canada Revenue Agency's Ottawa Taxation Centre tell CBC News they're astonished management didn't tell them they were exposed to asbestos in the ceiling over several years.

For several information technology workers, the first time they learned about asbestos inside the ceiling — specifically in a black tar used to coat pipes — was after a post went up on the MERX contracting site on Dec. 31.

The post calls for bids to clean up asbestos-containing materials in a ceiling at the CRA's headquarters at 875 Heron Rd.

CRA employees told CBC that while they were aware there was asbestos in parts of the building, they were not told the areas they were working in housed asbestos-containing materials.

They said they were only made aware of the ceiling pipe asbestos in April 2015, not long after several CBC reports detailed concerns of former CRA electrician Denis Lapointe.

'We'd get severe nose bleeds. You'd get a cough that makes no sense and never goes away.'
- Ottawa tax centre worker

The federal Labour Department is currently conducting an investigation based on Lapointe's complaints.

"If it weren't for Denis, we wouldn't know any of this," said an IT worker.

Dozens of workers are in the process of filing formal complaints with the department about past threats to their health and safety. Current and former information technology and trades workers say extensive asbestos exposure goes back decades.

'This touches a lot of people'

"The thing that really bothers me is we asked managers on a regular basis, 'Are you sure this stuff is OK?'" said a federal IT worker who didn't want to be named for fear of losing his job.

"Management won't recognize we were working in a hazardous environment. This touches a lot of people."

pipe inside government building asbestos 875 Heron Road Ottawa CRA

Asbestos-containing black tar covers the pipes in the ceiling at the Ottawa Taxation Centre. IT workers say they disrupted these pipe coverings with X-Acto knives and the claws of their hammers. (MERX document (Government of Canada))

Workers say they were always covered in debris and dust. Over the years, they regularly disrupted the pipe covering as they worked to install and fix internet cables in the ceiling.

Although they haven't worked inside the ceiling recently, they wonder about private contractors who have taken on a lot of the trades work.

"We were cutting it off with X-Acto knives or the claws of hammers," said the IT worker. "We'd cut the sheath and tie the cables directly to the pipes. We now know the stuff we were cutting into was asbestos."

'No protection, nothing whatsoever'

In fact, the MERX document states material covering the pipes contains five per cent Chrysotile asbestos.

"We were told there was no reason to have gloves, masks or hats. There was no protection, nothing whatsoever," the worker said.

The IT workers noted they'd often open up the ceiling tiles while working around other office and clerical employees in the tax centre.

There were health issues for some of the men who worked in the dusty environment inside shafts, ceilings and floor spaces — issues they plan to document in complaints to be filed this week.

"We'd get severe nose bleeds," said one worker. "You'd get a cough that makes no sense and never goes away."

Public Services and Procurement Canada (formerly Public Works) owns the building. CBC requested an interview regarding the asbestos in the ceiling at 875 Heron Rd. and received a statement saying: "Public Services and Procurement Canada was aware of the asbestos. Information on the presence of asbestos was provided to the occupant."

The occupant is the CRA. CBC asked the agency if it had informed its employees of the potential risk of asbestos exposure — something it's required by law to do.

CRA held info session in Sept. 2015

CRA initially refused to "comment on the specific situation of its employees" and a request to the agency, to speak with the department's new minister, was denied.

But late Wednesday night, CRA spokesman Philippe Brideau sent an emailed statement saying it has told employees at 875 Heron Rd. about the presence of asbestos-contaminated materials "on multiple occasions" since 1998.

'All employees had an opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns.' - Philippe Brideau, CRA spokesman

In September 2015, after CBC's report, "a communique was sent to employees, and experts were invited to attend employee information sessions to answer questions on the asbestos issue," Brideau's statement says.

"Topics discussed as part of this information session included detailed information on the location of the asbestos, why it was used, how is it tracked, the safety regulations that must be met for containment and removal, the role of Occupation Health and Safety (OHS) committees in the workplace, and steps taken over the years. All employees had an opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns."

Unions asking questions

Workers, however, still want answers from their employer, and two public service unions are also asking questions.

IT workers fall under the Professional Institute of the Public Service, while trades workers are represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

denis st. jean psac health labour safety boiler explosion

Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer for PSAC, says the government has a moral obligation to provide any information they have about potential asbestos exposure to current and former workers. (CBC)

Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer for PSAC, said the federal departments have a moral obligation to provide any information they have about potential asbestos exposure to their current and former workers.

"If I have evidence there is asbestos in a particular building that I'm asking all employees to work in, and they're questioning whether or not they've been exposed, I would think it would be due diligence on [the employer's] part to actually come out and share that information with the employees," said St-Jean.

Recently, updated figures from Statistics Canada reveal the number of cases and deaths from mesothelioma — a deadly cancer caused primarily by workplace asbestos exposure — have continued to rise and show no signs of abating.

Exposure to asbestos doesn't guarantee illness, but there is concern because the latency period can be 10 to 40 years.

"Now that I'm aware, I'm contacting a doctor to at least get this on my file," said one IT worker.

"Most of us are retiring soon. I want an acknowledgment that it happened, that if we get ill, they'll take care of us."

Asbestos cleanup at the taxation centre is being carried out in other areas of the building.

A notice went out to staff in mid-January, announcing "minor remediation of designated substance and hazardous materials within the Heron Road facility between Nov. 1, 2015 [until] Jan. 31, 2016."   

Debris on ceiling tile

This asbestos-containing debris was found on ceiling tiles inside the Ottawa Taxation Centre. IT and trades workers say they encountered this kind of debris regularly over the course of their work. (MERX bid document (government of Canada))