New alliance calls for compensation reform

There is a powerful new force in Ontario politics. The Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA), made up of clusters of workers experiencing work-related illnesses, is calling on the Ontario government to fix the broken Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) system.

“Workplace illnesses can affect anyone – from cancer, respiratory disease or hearing loss. The challenge with occupational disease is that people who are sick may not connect their symptoms to exposures they had at work,” said Sylvia Boyce, USW District 6 Health and Safety Co-ordinator, who is assisting the alliance.

“One of the big problems is latency. People may have symptoms over the years but not know what is causing them and they don’t make the link to their workplace exposures – that often doesn’t happen for many, many years,” said Boyce.

Occupational disease can start out mild, but it’s very serious and over time, it can be fatal.

“There are so many carcinogens and toxic substances that people work with and so many single exposures, or combination of exposures that workers have, that are the known cause of many occupational diseases,” said Boyce.

The new alliance – ODRA – is bringing awareness to occupational disease – both for the people and their families experiencing it – and raising awareness with the Ontario government. The alliance brings together eight clusters of workers across Ontario who are experiencing occupational disease, and their advocates who are fighting for recognition and compensation.

Too many people have died from occupational disease without receiving compensation from the WSIB even though their illness, suffering and early death were caused by conditions at their workplace. Families are also affected due to medical costs, reduced earnings from workers who got sick, and even family members who have also become ill from exposures brought home by workers.

A woman standing with USW District 6 Director Marty WarrenGayle Wannan came to the USW’s rubber worker intake clinic in 2019. Wannan’s husband Lynden died from pancreatic cancer after working at Uniroyal for 26 years, aged 49. Wannan believes workplace exposure to chemicals contributed to his illness and death.

USW supports the ODRA

Our union believes in fighting for a fair and just compensation system that would provide benefits for workers, retirees and spouses who have been made ill from work.

The USW represents the majority of workers included in the ODRA, with thousands of workers from four clusters in Ontario.

In addition to Boyce, Steelworkers advocates providing expertise to the alliance include:

  • Andy LaDouceur and Adam Guizetti, Local 2251, working with former steel workers from Sault Ste. Marie and ore mine workers from Wawa
  • Jessica Montgomery, Local 2020, working with former workers from the Neelon Casting foundry in Sudbury
  • Janice Martell, representing the McIntyre Powder Project
  • Gord Assmann, Local 677 retiree and SOAR member, representing the Ontario Rubber Workers Project

“A lot of workers’ claims have been denied by the WSIB. The workers’ compensation system in Ontario has to be overhauled so that workers who are suffering or who have died get their just entitlement under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. Too many of the claims are denied. Only 10% of the rubber workers’ claims have been recognized, for example,” said Boyce.

Illness persists after companies are gone

Many workplaces where people were exposed to toxins and chemicals no longer exist. That makes it harder for the widows and widowers to make the link to the workplace and provide the evidence the WSIB requires in order to justify a claim.

“The records are all gone. The occupational health and safety data may be gone. If there was a Joint Health and Safety Committee, the minutes and any safety data sheets or other records may be lost. This is a huge roadblock in workers getting compensation,” said Boyce.

The ODRA makes four demands of government

The ODRA held a virtual press conference with NDP MPP Wayne Gates at the end of October 2021, to call on the Ontario government to fix the WSIB system.

“After decades of working, these workers have been abandoned not only by these employers but by the workers’ compensation system that was supposed to provide for them,” said Gates.

The ODRA has the support of unions and the Ontario Federation of Labour and community interest from the Ontario Network of Injured Workers.

The OFL stands in solidarity with the ODRA’s four demands, which include:

  • Compensate occupational disease claims when workplace patterns exceed levels in the surrounding community
  • Expand the list of compensable diseases presumed to be work-related
  • Use the proper legal standard; not scientific certainty
  • Accept that multiple exposures combine to cause disease

Ontario government cashes out employers instead of compensating workers

Instead of working to fix a flawed compensation system, the Ontario government has passed legislation that will refund up to $3 billion in WSIB premiums to employers.

In the USW’s submission on Bill 27, the so-called Working for Workers Act, the union calls this proposal “the next step in a long push by this government to write cheques with workers’
money and hand out the giveaways to businesses.”

“Money that was saved at the expense of injured workers or saved by freezing budgets for the
organizations funded by the WSIB should not be passed on to employers. The government’s
desire to simply distribute this money amongst employers shows a complete disregard for the
impact on injured workers and organizations dependent upon the WSIB funding,” wrote the USW in its submission.

The changes ODRA is demanding need to be made before thousands more workers die, and hundreds of thousands of people are put into poverty.

“Put pressure on the government. Make health and safety a priority. Put money into prevention. Award money to the injured workers. The WSIB system wasn’t intended to fund businesses,” said Boyce.

That is what our union, the labour movement and ODRA will continue to do – raise awareness about occupational disease, support those suffering and pressure the government to fix the system and put workers first.

More recent articles and resources on occupational disease

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