Seafood plant workers learn about crab asthma

Crab asthma is an occupational disease that many Canadians have never heard of, but the condition can be life-threatening. At a recent workshop in St. John's, Nfld., crab plant workers met with doctors to find out more.

Crab asthma strikes 15 per cent of people who work in the crab processing industry. They develop an allergic sensitivity to crab meat that leaves them debilitated and can eventually kill them.

Crab asthma has been around for as long as there has been crab processing. At the very least, people need inhalers; sometimes they wind up on oxygen. The most serious cases are life-threatening.

There is no cure for the condition and, to a doctor, there is only one solution: get out of the industry.

"If you keep a worker at work, the symptoms will continue, the patient gets worse, the need of medication gets worse," says Dr. Andre Cartier, head of respirology at Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal.

But for people in communities where unemployment is sometimes as high at 75 per cent, taking time off work is not so simple.

Since the groundfish moratorium in 1992, the fishing industry has made a major swing toward species like shrimp and crab. But shellfish processing is becoming much more highly automated than groundfish processing. That has resulted in fewer jobs than ever before.

Pius Power of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union says that means people are willing to put up with more to keep their jobs.

"After years of no work because of the moratorium, workers were content just to have a job. Now, many workers [with the condition] are choosing to suffer in silence," Power says.

Rosemary Wheeler drove six hours to be at this meeting. She's a crab plant worker from Summerford.

"I'm a single parent, with two teenagers, so really I don't have a choice but to work. I don't have any symptoms of crab asthma right now, but according to what I've heard here today, I could develop it tomorrow."

Wheeler says she's leaving the workshop feeling more informed but also more nervous. After hearing from the province that only 16 people have ever received compensation for crab asthma, she's worried about what would happen if she ever developed symptoms.