Saskatchewan backs mandatory asbestos registry for public buildings

The Saskatchewan government says it will back proposed legislation to make reporting of asbestos in public buildings mandatory.

The Saskatchewan government says it will back proposed legislation to make reporting of asbestos in public buildings mandatory.

Labour Minister Don Morgan said Thursday a private member's bill will proceed through the legislative process to a committee that will consider things such as what information would have to be provided on the registry.

"The bill would make it mandatory across a wide range of public entities and that's something we would want to work out at committee as to which entities we properly have jurisdiction over or should control," Morgan said Thursday. "But we think the more buildings that are included, the better level of safety that we can offer."

The bill was introduced by the Opposition NDP last fall in honour of Howard Willems, a former building inspector who died from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that comes from inhaling asbestos fibres.

Willems had argued that people should know if they're going into buildings that have asbestos — especially if construction is being done.

Asbestos is typically found in building materials such as insulation. It is not considered harmful if undisturbed, but renovations or construction work stirs up hazardous fibres that can be inhaled.

The province said last fall that it would provide lists of more than 300 government buildings that contain asbestos.

But Willems' family and groups, including the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, said that didn't go far enough because it wasn't mandatory for other public buildings such as schools or hospitals to register.

Morgan said the legislation would make that mandatory.

The Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region did post information and Morgan said he was "quite surprised" by the details.

"Not only did they say yes or no for a building, but they said, 'In this particular crawl space there's pipes that are coated' and the various technical details. And that's the type of information that will make it safe for somebody to go in and work when you know where the asbestos is, what it was used for, whether it's encapsulated," said Morgan.

"That would be the type of information we would want provided from all of the entities."

Willems' stepson Jesse Todd is pleased with the government's decision to move forward with a strengthened bill.

"The voluntary registry was an incomplete list," said Todd, who is also chairman of the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

"We saw all kinds of variations of information that was submitted. We saw lists that were one-page letters that didn't provide very much information at all. And we also had some of the health regions provide information that was extremely detailed and right to the top of our list as far as what the gold standard was."

Willems died a week after the bill was tabled. Todd said the bill's passage would be a wonderful tribute.

"He started this fight just over two years ago. He'd been working so hard towards that up until his passing last November and we've been working tirelessly towards this goal," he said.

"We realize we haven't reached the final stage yet, it's not law yet, but this is an important step in the right direction."

Morgan said the law should pass this spring.