Sudbury·Audio

Former Neelon Casting workers start receiving compensation for workplace illnesses

A handful of the over 200 compensation claims by former Neelon Casting employees who suffered illnesses linked to working at the now-closed Sudbury, Ont., brake-parts maker have been processed — which is proving to be "life changing" for some families, a union rep says.

20 of over 200 WSIB claims OK'd, denied files linked to now-closed Sudbury brake-parts maker to be re-examined

One of the areas at now-defunct Neelon Casting, a manufacturer in Greater Sudbury that made brake parts between 1976 and 2007. Former workers, with the help of their onetime union, filed compensation claims after they fell sick. (Supplied by Jessica Montgomery)

A handful of the over 200 compensation claims by former Neelon Casting employees who suffered respiratory and other illnesses linked to working at the now-closed Sudbury, Ont., brake-parts manufacturer have been processed — which is proving to be "life changing" for some families, a union rep says.

The company, which also went by the names Affinia and Dana Brake Parts, operated between 1976 and 2007 on Foundry Road. Former workers began experiencing various illnesses after it closed. A cluster of occupational diseases was discovered last year.

Jessica Montgomery, who's with United Steelworkers Local 2020, the union that represented workers when Neelon Casting was operating, has been helping them file compensation claims with the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB).

Jessica Montgomery, with United Steelworkers Local 2020, at the Leo Gerard Worker's Memorial Park in Val Caron. The wreath was for the Day of Mourning, marked on April 28, which remembers workers who have been killed, injured or sick on the job. (Supplied by Jessica Montgomery)

Montgomery said the WSIB has allowed USW Local 2020 to represent past union members as well as contractors and non-union staff, in "a first for the province." 

She said most of the claims are for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, respiratory illnesses, the lung disease silicosis, hand-arm vibration syndrome (which results in finger numbness and other problems) and hearing loss.

Claims approved

About 20 claims have been approved so far, unexpected compensation for those who didn't realize their former workplace contributed to their illnesses.

"That's benefits and monetary amounts that these families didn't think that they would see or receive, and has changed the lives of so many families," said Montgomery.

The amount awarded to each individual depends on the illness and length of exposure at the plant, she said, without giving exact totals.

Montgomery said the biggest help is the health-care benefits, which will help pay for prescriptions or assistive devices each individual may need.

"One of my claimants that just got awarded, they were paying well up to $700 a month in benefits to assist with the worker's medications, oxygen tank rental and things like that, so they relieved that financial burden on the family," she said.

"The ones that I have been dealing with, this is life changing for them."

Research and investigation 

The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers' (OHCOW) interdisciplinary team is investigating the cluster of occupational diseases, including holding an intake clinic with former Neelon Casting workers.

Andrew Zarnke, an occupational hygienist with OHCOW in Sudbury, said the team is doing research to assess the extent the workplace could have contributed to the adverse health effects.

"A big part of that is — and this is where the research and investigation side of it comes from — to assess the entire group, not just people that right here are presenting with illnesses that they want to submit claims for," he said.

"It helps us to gather a more complete picture, to do a proper assessment of what exposures, what environmental conditions in that workplace could have contributed to the type of health outcomes we see in the entire group."

About 46 WSIB claims were denied before the connection between the workplace and the illnesses was discovered.

But those cases will now be investigated by OHCOW's interdisciplinary team, to determine if the claims can be resubmitted. Zarnke said occupational health physicians, nurses, hygienists and others will help assess each case. 

Montgomery said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in some claims, since specialists in southern Ontario aren't accepting or assessing patients outside the region. 

Exposure profile

A committee, which includes some former workers, is compiling a retrospective exposure profile of the manufacturing plant that will include information about work duties, which substances workers were exposed to, and where they were exposed in the building.

"Getting qualitative details about what the potential exposures were, what things looked like, what they smelled like, how clear the air was ... can help us assess the degree of certain exposures," said Zarnke. 

OHCOW previously compiled similar reports for GE and Ventura Plastics, which both operated in Peterborough, Ont.

A committee including former Neelon Casting workers has been formed to compile a retrospective exposure profile of the manufacturing plant, to help determine what workers may have been exposed to when the company was operating. (Supplied by Jessica Montgomery)

The Neelon Casting exposure profile will be submitted to the WSIB to provide a more accurate picture of the workers' employment history and potential exposures.  

"A lot of the exposures happened into the '70s and '80s, prior to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. We didn't have the laws and legislation there," said Montgomery.

"They didn't know," she added, referring to the company when it was in operation.

Education, prevention

Montgomery said she would rather educate people about workplace health and safety than lay blame.

"Nobody expects to go to work and know that their workplace may, down the line, lead to something like this," she said.

The data and information OHCOW collects through its investigations, combined with the exposure profile, will help in developing ways to make the workplace safer. 

"The cluster work is studying people that are already experiencing health issues — which is sad," said Zarnke.

"Obviously a way to prevent that is to learn from those experiences, and disseminate that information to current places that are employing people that could potentially prevent those things from happening again."

A cluster of occupational diseases was discovered last fall in Sudbury involving workers from a former manufacturing plant. Jessica Montgomery of United Steelworkers Local 2020 has been helping those workers with Workers Safety Insurance Board or WSIB claims. She joined us to talk about the progress being made. 10:00

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Gemmill

Journalist

Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who has covered news in Sudbury, Ont., for 14 years. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to angela.gemmill@cbc.ca

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