Part 2 in a four-part series
Frank and Clair Murphy drove from their home in Clarke’s Beach to St. John’s for a couple of days this past week, heading into the Health Sciences Centre for a medical appointment.
As of Monday, Clair was wondering if some of her husband’s latest health concerns are related to the occupational disease plaguing him in his retirement. It is the kind of question she particularly struggled with, unsure of where to find answers, in the earliest days after his diagnosis.
An electrician by trade, he worked at the IOC mine in Labrador City for 34 years and was diagnosed with silicosis in 2009, a result of breathing in lung-scarring silica dust for decades, in the years before a recognition of the problem and changes to safety regulations.
He has since had two surgeries and lost a piece of his right lung.
His wife has coped with the developments, his symptoms and the associated back and forth to medical appointments — all while dealing with a claim to the provincial Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC).
“Initially, for the first few months, I found it very discouraging,” she said, noting she found a lack of direction and readily available information.
She said her husband ultimately being assigned a solid case worker was a help.
“It’s a horrible disease and the thing is the system is not making it any easier for the worker,” she said.
“I find that for me, myself, where I had some medical knowledge, that I could ascertain some of the information a lot quicker than maybe somebody who really doesn’t know the system at all,” she added, noting her work as a nurse for 30 years.
Occupational diseases like silicosis are far and away the province’s No. 1 workplace killer.
Of the 26 claims of a workplace fatality accepted by WHSCC in 2012, a full 20 were deaths by occupational disease.
The cases are often realized over time, usually several decades, and sometimes not before the worker affected has died. They take time and research, as cases have to first be tied back to the workplace in order for compensation to even be considered.
NDP leader Lorraine Michael said Newfoundland and Labrador has a history of what she characterized as slow movements and delayed recognition for people and families living with workplace illnesses, and for those who have lost someone to an occupational disease.
Fallout from the asbestos mine at Baie Verte was one example. Most cases of asbestosis, mesothelioma and other deadly illnesses being experienced by former mine workers can be tied to the heyday of the mine, from 1963 into the 1980s. There was a landmark registry completed of former workers at the long-shuttered operation, but compensation issues are still being worked on, Michael said.
She said she also takes little comfort in a government-funded medical audit by Morneau Shepell looking at the health of a sampling of current and former mine workers, announced in February, since it was delayed for two years.
The delay was at least in part, according to The Telegram archives, related to a challenge by the union to the consultant company selected after an initial government tender.
A study looking at fears of occupational disease in former workers at the Marystown Shipyard took two and a half years to complete. According to the response from critics with the Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance, it was ultimately not specific enough to that workplace to effectively answer their questions and address their concerns.
Michael believes there has already been an identifiable delay in addressing the issue of presumptive cancer legislation for firefighters.
In September 2011, Alex Forrest, a Winnipeg firefighter and the Canadian trustee of the International Association of Firefighters, came to the province to appeal to both the WHSCC and the premier for the legislation — recognizing the potential long-term effects of the exposure of firefighters to carcinogens.
Presumptive cancer legislation for firefighters was first introduced in Manitoba in 2002. Other provinces had since followed suit, but not this one.
“And you know, I have to ask,” Michael said, in an interview this past week, “why is our government so slow to deal with that?”
Under the Progressive Conservative government, there have been initiatives to grow the understanding of and response to occupational diseases.
They include the creation of an occupational disease advising panel at WHSCC, as well as a partnership looking at occupational diseases with the lauded Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail in Quebec.
In 2011, it was announced the WHSCC was taking on claims from people who worked above-ground at the former fluorspar mine in St. Lawrence and their families, for illnesses and deaths potentially tied to their work.
Both Clair Murphy and Michael insist there is more to be done. Both made submissions on the subject of occupational disease to the WHSCC during a series of public consultation sessions by the agency.
Murphy, who made her presentation March 15, wants to know what will come of all that.
“They went around this province, they spent the taxpayers money to do this review and to come up with ways to improve the system,” she said. “I, to this day, have not heard one thing that’s been changed or improved.”
Tomorrow: Part 3 of The Telegram’s series looking at OHS issues — a look at paying the cost of worker protection.