New safety plan seeks to boost monitoring of workplace hazards in Manitoba

SAFE Work Manitoba hopes its new strategy will reduce the amount of risks Manitobans face in the workplace, while educating employers about how to create a safer environment for people on the job.

224 Manitobans died of workplace-related illnesses, diseases between 2000-15, SAFE Work Manitoba says

More than 200 Manitobans died between 2000 and 2015 from illnesses and diseases they contracted on the job, according to SAFE Work Manitoba. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

Manitoba workers are exposed to harmful chemicals and materials on the job every day, but the architects of a new safety plan hope to reduce risks by more closely monitoring workplaces — and by educating employers about hazards they may not even know exist.

On Monday, SAFE Work Manitoba unveiled a new five-year plan aimed at reducing the risks faced by workers in the province, thereby bringing down the death toll.

Between 2000 and 2015, 224 Manitoba workers died of cancers, lung diseases and other illnesses and diseases,  exposure to asbestos and other toxic fumes being the most common cause, said SAFE Work Manitoba's operating officer.

"Imagine for a moment a cemetery with 224 tombstones," said Jamie Hall. "Most of these deaths were linked to asbestos exposure or exposure to other toxic chemicals that occurred many years ago and developed into diseases later in the workers' lives."

The Occupational Disease and Illness Prevention Strategy sets out four areas SAFE Work Manitoba plans to address through partnerships with local industries.

Jamie Hall is the COO of Safe Work Manitoba. (CBC)

Hall said the organization plans to boost monitoring of employee exposures to chemical and physical hazards, and identify preventive safety measures tailored to the needs of local businesses.

The plan also sets out to bridge the knowledge gap among employers who Hall says may be unwittingly exposing their workforce to occupational hazards.

"There is a very small minority who may hide something ... but most employers just may not be aware that their workers may be exposed to a hazard."

The report draws on monitoring work previously conducted by CAREX Canada, an effort to keep a close eye on worker exposure rates across the country and to log those efforts in an online database.

In particular, the SAFE Work Manitoba report includes breakdowns of common carcinogens founds in various industries in the province.

According to the CAREX database 2017 estimates, about 12,000 Manitoba construction workers, drywallers, miners and heavy equipment operators are exposed to silica in their lines of work — a cancer-causing component of sand and rock that can be inhaled without the proper mask and safety equipment. 

Hall said the province has lacked a comprehensive data-collection strategy in the past. Through the new plan, Hall said SAFE Work Manitoba hopes to collect more evidence and build stronger relationships within industry professionals.

"Occupational disease and illness is having a significant impact on workers in Manitoba but we don't have a full picture of the problem," Hall said. 

"This will make workplaces healthier now and will help prevent illness that could develop in the future."

Manitobans who died of occupational diseases, illnesses: 2000-15

  • 113 died of severe forms of lung cancer caused by asbestos
  • 58 died of cancers — brain, prostate, kidney, colorectal and multiple myeloma
  • 30 died of lung disease caused by asbestos exposure
  • 23 died of lung diseases, including pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis

Source: Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba

Estimated number of Manitoba workers exposed to cancer-causing agents on the job, 2017:

  • 60,000 farmers, landscaping, outside labourers — UV radiation from the sun
  • 35,000 truck drivers and heavy equipment operators — diesel engine exhaust
  • 15,000 truckers, auto workers, technicians and mechanics and firefighters — benzene
  • 12,000 workers in construction, agriculture, manufacturing industries — silica
  • 11,000 carpenters and woodworkers — harmful sawdust
  • 5,000 construction workers, electricians, plumbers, drywall installers and auto mechanics — asbestos
  • 4,000 welders, machinists, construction millwrights and industrial mechanics — nickel

Source: CAREX Canada