Contractor in fight with Public Works after asbestos exposure

B.C. contractor Don Garrett said he's been fighting with the federal government for more than three years after he says he was exposed to high levels of asbestos.

Job to replace sinks at B.C. prison exposed workers to carcinogen

For more than a century, asbestos was used in construction in Canada. (CBC )

Don Garrett says it should have been one of the simplest construction jobs he'd ever done.

Instead, the British Columbia contractor said he was exposed to high levels of asbestos, almost lost his business and has been fighting with federal government bureaucrats for more than three years.

"I was taking this material home, it was on my clothes. I didn’t know I was dealing with asbestos so it entered my household," said Garrett.

Garrett said Public Works didn't follow its own requirement to produce a pre-construction, hazardous materials report. CBC (CBC)

Garrett owns a construction business in Hope, B.C. In 2009, he was contracted by Public Works Government Services Canada to replace 160 sinks and toilets inside the Kent Institution — a maximum security, federal prison in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.

Asbestos discovered during prison job

The job should have taken a month to complete, he said, but it took seven months from start to finish. He blames the delays on the discovery of asbestos on three separate occasions.

"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. It wasn’t. I remember writing and asking for that two to three times," said Garrett.

While replacing prison toilets, Garrett said he had to replace small gaskets that were old and difficult to remove. It required scraping and grinding. It wasn’t until several days into the job he realized the gaskets were made of asbestos.

Mandatory reporting demanded

Public buildings across the country contain asbestos in many forms. For more than a century, asbestos was used in construction in Canada. Last week, Saskatchewan was the first province to require mandatory reporting of asbestos in public buildings.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin is pushing for a similar federal law.

"Working people have a legislated right to know what hazards or chemicals they may be exposed to in a working day," said Martin, who at one time worked at an asbestos mine.

Martin is currently part of a long-term study of the health of people exposed to the carcinogen.

"Some unsuspecting worker is going to stumble across this material and expose themselves and put themselves at great risk…so I think our policy on asbestos in the last century has been one of our greatest shames."

"I'd breathed this material without a mask or any sort of containment for a whole week — wire brushing, scraping, filing — very difficult to remove. The whole floor was covered in this material," recalled Garrett.

Inmate swept up asbestos with broom

A report from Work Safe BC confirms Garrett and his construction workers "were exposed to asbestos containing material in the plumbing hardware."

Lab tests revealed the gasket contained 85 to 90 per cent chrysotile asbestos, a human carcinogen, according to the report.

"My crew was exposed too. Actually, when asbestos finally got cleaned up there was an inmate who swept it up with a push broom..."

"The guards, they're afraid to bring this forward for fear of reprisals," he said.

Corrections officers concerned

Correctional officers inside the Kent Institution are also concerned about exposure to asbestos on this and previous occasions. Gord Robertson, the Pacific regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said his members were aware of various asbestos removal issues when Garrett worked at Kent.

"Officers at the time were concerned their feelings of being exposed were being minimized. They felt their reporting went basically unheard. We are concerned about maybe not a cover-up, but a minimization of the situation," said Robertson.

The office of Corrections Investigator Howard Sapers is now probing the case.

Garrett has had CAT scans and pulmonary tests. He's found a mark on one lung, but he said there’s no way of knowing if that’s from exposure at the prison.

"They want a steady amount of testing to monitor what that asbestos is doing in my lungs… asbestos can be a death sentence. It haunts me."

Garrett said Public Works doesn’t follow its own rules when it comes to maintaining health and safety in the workplace — for government workers or contractors. He said the department has mishandled his case.

"They figure it’s fine to avoid doing these pre-construction, hazardous materials investigations. And what I’ve experienced, when they get caught they panic and they bring in consultants…there should be an inventory of any hazardous materials and it seems to me, if they have an inventory, they’re certainly not maintaining it."

Commissioner says issues dealt with 'appropriately'

Garrett said Public Works also owes him money for the delays during his work at Kent prison.

Officials at the department would not comment on this case.

"I've gone to the highest levels at Public Works. My complaints have all landed up in Ottawa, to three different agencies," he said.

Those agencies included the Office of the Procurement Ombudsman and the Office of the Public Service Integrity Commissioner.

Mario Dion, the public service integrity commissioner, sent Garrett a decision in early April.

It reads: "I believe the concerns and issues raised by you and or any other parties involved in the construction project were appropriately dealt with by the proper organizations."

Garrett also sought help from an Ottawa whistleblower group, Canadians for Accountability. The group's founder, Allan Cutler, said he's reviewed Garrett's claims and agrees the case has been mishandled.

"He only wants what he’s entitled to...The other one is, the asbestos issue. Nobody seems to worry about people and the potential long term through asbestos. And somebody has to take action and it's a federal problem in this case."

The entire process has left Garrett frustrated and upset.

"When things go to Ottawa, it seems to me that they come back as cover-up reports and this is alarming," he said.