Tradespeople who say they were unknowingly exposed to asbestos while working in federal buildings say it’s time to develop a registry to let workers know what hazards may be in Canada's public buildings.
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Former House of Commons staff electronics technician Hugh Graham is one of a growing number of tradespeople calling for a national public building registry.
Graham worked 18 years on Parliament Hill and has since been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.
Graham, now 80, has pleural plaques, or scarring over his lungs, that wasn't confirmed until a operation in Ottawa.
An April 2000 report from the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers confirmed Graham was exposed to asbestos during his time on Parliament Hill in the 1980s and 90s.
Government managers learned about the extent of asbestos in the Parliament buildings in a 1988 study, but Graham says he and his colleagues were not warned to take precautions until two years later.
Graham says he knows several people who worked on the Hill who were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. He and some co-workers took it upon themselves to get checked out by doctors.
'There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think of my condition and asbestos.' - Electronics technician Hugh Graham.
Initially, there was no sign of any asbestos-related disease. In Graham’s case, the disease, which has a latency of up to 40 years, was eventually confirmed during an operation in Ottawa.
"The plaque is over both my lungs…it’s also over my diaphragm…it looks like pizza pie, all lumpy and bumpy with scar tissue. That’s what turns into mesothelioma," said Graham, referring to the asbestos-related cancer.
He says he lives with the possibility that cancer is coming.
"There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think of my condition and asbestos," said Graham.
NDP calls for national registry
Graham says other countries have public registries that list buildings with asbestos and doesn’t understand why Canada doesn’t have such a registry.
Currently, Saskatchewan is the only province with such a list.
In 2012, the NDP put forth a private member's bill calling on the Canada Labour Code to be modified to call on the Ministry of Labour to maintain a registry of information about all accidents and occupational diseases at federal buildings, but it did not move past first reading.
In question period on Tuesday, NDP MP and public works critic Pat Martin renewed his party's call for a registry.
"In the absence of a comprehensive removal program, will the minister of public works at least concede to creating and publishing a national registry of all government buildings that are contaminated with asbestos so the workers in these buildings have at least a fighting chance when they go to work?" asked Martin.
Chris Warkentin, the parliamentary secretary for the minister of public works, did not address the idea of a registry specifically but said the government is committed to making sure workers have access to safe, fair and productive workplaces.
"Our government ensures our workers can refuse any work they believe may be dangerous. Dedicated health and safety officers work diligently on a daily basis to ensure the safety of Canada's federally regulated workers," said Warkentin.
Asbestos present in older buildings
Up until the 1990s, buildings in Canada were often constructed with asbestos containing materials — including ductwork, concrete, insulation, ceiling and floor materials.
Denis St. Jean, the national health and safety officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says it’s typical for federal buildings across Canada to contain asbestos.
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St. Jean notes this is only a problem when the asbestos is disturbed, which is often the job of the contractor or tradesperson.
"We know these buildings have asbestos. We know they were built in the years where there is high risk of exposure…There should be at least an inventory of how many of these buildings have asbestos," said St. Jean.
A CBC investigation has revealed that while it is a worker’s right to know the hazards that might be encountered on the job, Ottawa tradesman Denis Lapointe says he had to file access to information requests to learn about the extent of his potential exposure to asbestos.
Complaints across country
Lapointe, Graham and tradespeople in Ottawa are not the only ones who say they were kept in the dark about potential exposure.
Don Garrett, a private contractor in Hope, B.C., recently filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to settle his outstanding claim over exposure to asbestos while doing a job in a Public Works and Government Services building in B.C. in 2009.
Garrett says he unknowingly exposed himself, his staff members, inmates and correctional officers to asbestos over several days.
"A project in an older building where there’s a chance of having asbestos, there’s a requirement to produce a pre-construction, hazardous materials report and that should have been with the tender package," he said.
"It wasn’t. I remember writing and asking for that two to three times," said Garrett. He says he never got it.