Report sheds light on silica dust danger, despite 'very poor cooperation' from Wabush Mines

The province is promising to implement 11 recommendations coming out of a study looking at the issue of silica dust in western Labrador.

N.L. government has accepted the 11 recommendations

The study looking at exposure to silica dust in western Labrador found doctors need better education about the issue. (CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is promising to implement 11 recommendations coming out of a study looking at the issue of silica dust in western Labrador.

The report studied the medical information for 636 people, most of them retired, in the region who worked at Wabush Mines or the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) mine.

Dust from the mines contains silica, and long-term exposure can lead to a condition called silicosis, which leaves the lung scared. It can lead to problems breathing, but is rarely fatal.

The reports recommends that radiologists get better training to identify silica exposure on chest X-rays. It also educates family doctors about silicosis to ensure that retired workers continue to be monitored for the disease.

Minister for Service NL Perry Trimper says two permanent occupational health and safety workers have been hired. They'll help monitor compliance with regulations on reducing dust (CBC file photo)

"There's obviously something wrong with the process," Service NL Minister Perry Trimper said in Labrador City Wednesday, where the report was released to the public.

"I feel the way forward here is for us to do a complete review, of everything from how workers respond, in terms of their cooperation, their interest in seeing a physician, through to ... do we have trained and qualified physicians here."

Out of those studied, 81 per cent showed no evidence of silicosis, 14 per cent had dust exposure that required follow up, and six per cent had suspected silicosis.

New inspectors hired

On Wednesday, the province announced that two occupational heath and safety inspectors have been hired full time for the area. Currently, inspectors have to be flown in and out of the community — a move applauded by the union.

"I'm hoping it's going to make a huge difference because there's many areas right across site, where we've never had issues before with dust conditions and now they're starting to raise their ugly head," said Ron Thomas, the local union president.

The province says lack of cooperation from Wabush Mines made it difficult to assess the health of its former workers. (CBC)

'Very poor cooperation'

The authors of the report noted frustration with studying workers from the now defunct Wabush Mines. The company that owns the mine, Cliffs Natural Resources, wouldn't provide health records for workers.

"We received very poor cooperation from the owners, operators of Wabush Mines, and it's been typical of the relationship this government has had with that company," said Trimper.


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.