Canadian GE workers exposed to carcinogens for more than a half-century, report says
Tuesday 30th May 2017
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The report was commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Retrospective Exposure Profiles, which consists of GE retirees, to determine whether there was a link between exposures to toxic agents at the factory and "what was perceived as an extraordinarily high incidence of cancer among employees".
During an eight-month investigation, researchers found that at least 40 of the toxic chemicals that workers were exposed to were known or suspected carcinogens.
Motors, generators, and electrical components for urban electrical utilities were manufactured at the plant, where industrial processes such as welding, plastics and rubber production, and machining and pouring molten metals took place.
Substances that workers routinely used and were subjected to included welding fumes, asbestos, arsenic, benzene, mineral oils, painters, uranium and inorganic acid mists, the report claims -- all of which are classified as "group 1: carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
The report says the chemicals were used in large quantities and handled directly without proper protection. Examples revealed in the study include workers sawing asbestos boards without proper respiratory equipment and the use by hundreds of employees of trichloroethylene- and toluene-soaked rags to wipe down equipment by hand.
In addition to chemical exposures associated with industrial work processes, the report alleges that workers were exposed to diesel, propane, and petrol fumes as vehicles often were left idling for hours during loading and unloading.
It also says that chemicals were continuously given off from the creosote-treated woodblock flooring that was installed throughout the building complex. The report said the flooring "continually oozed creosotes", which are classified by IARC as probably carcinogenic to humans.
Spilled chemicals, such as lead and mercury, could also become trapped in the gaps between the blocks, according to the report, which concluded: "Given the widespread use of this flooring in the plant, such spills contributed to the toxic burden experienced by workers."
Twenty-two separate GE Peterborough departments were reviewed as part of the investigation, including carpentry, foundry, transportation diesel equipment, induction motors, coil impregnation, and powder paint/structural steel. However, according to the report, the open-plan space of the factory, and ineffective ventilation, meant many of these departments shared the same atmosphere and therefore the same atmospheric contaminants.
"Consequently, what was generated in dusts, fumes, or vapours flowed readily to neighbouring departments. In effect, there was major cross contamination between, and within, departments," it claims.
The report says a "constellation of risk factors" contributed to the exposure of workers to a "wide spectrum" of toxic and carcinogenic agents. These included working closely to the source of exposure, prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals, absent or inadequate personal protective equipment, poor enforcement of safe-work procedures, and an inadequate knowledge about the health hazards and exposure controls for worker protection.
Canada's general trade union Unifor will present the report, which was authored by two occupational health researchers, to Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to support the "many" occupational disease claims that have been made by ex-workers at the GE Peterborough plant.
There are currently 31 Unifor members with WSIB claims for GE job-related illness, including several forms of cancer.
According to the Peterborough Examiner website, more than 660 applications for compensation have been filed with WSIB over the past 13 years. About 280 claimants have received compensation, however roughly 340 claims have been denied or withdrawn because there was insufficient evidence linking working conditions to the illnesses suffered.
Unifor's national representative Joel Carr said the new report "provides much needed evidence to allow the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to reopen and support these claims".
A GE spokesperson told IOSH Magazine: "The health and safety of our employees is our number one priority. The GE Peterborough plant has operated for over 125 years, employing tens of thousands of workers during its operation. Given the history of the facility as a large, diversified industrial site -- as in the case of many industries that operated for such a long period -- the breadth of chemicals used was common.
"As more information became available about chemical use GE, like other industrial companies, took action to reduce or eliminate their usage. GE adhered to the health and safety practices that were appropriate for the time, and we have continually enhanced those practices as scientific research and best practices in industrial health and safety emerged.
"GE Peterborough continues to work cooperatively with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the city of Peterborough and Peterborough Public Health to meet our environmental, health and safety obligations.
"Over the years, GE has made numerous upgrades and renovations to the facility, including our most recent activity in 2014: a multi-year, multimillion dollar upgrade of the Peterborough plant. This upgrade included a significant investment in new technologies and equipment, and modernized our building space. It also enhanced health and safety."
The chartered society for worker health protection has identified the sector’s welders as a group at particular risk of developing serious lung conditions from inhaling hazardous fumes, gases and dusts. Welding is one of the top ten causes of work-related cancer and is estimated to cause around 150 deaths a year in the UK, says the BOHS. It also estimates that 40 to 50 welders are hospitalised with pneumonia as a result of breathing metal fume at work each year, with two deaths annually linked to the condition.
The environmental charity Global Action Plan, which specialises in sustainable behaviour change, is launching a nationwide campaign today supported by 50 health institutions, councils and universities, including the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation, and various NHS Trusts, to inspire local residents and businesses to commit themselves to reducing pollution levels.
The trade union has claimed that a lack of communication at management and supervisory levels left seven workers from the council’s parks, streets and open spaces division unaware they were handling contaminated waste when dealing with a fly tipping incident at Heathery Wood in Thornton. It said those who were instructed to manage the waste had not received any asbestos awareness training.
The victim sustained a broken arm in the 14 December 2015 incident.The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the company had failed to effectively segregate its pedestrian workers from those who were driving FLTs. Liverpool Magistrates’ Court was told that Encirc had been served with an improvement notice in 2007 for the poor segregation of workplace transport in the yard and warehouse areas. In 2008 an employee was injured in another incident involving an FLT.
The victim was operating a foot pedal saw on 21 March 2016 when his hand came into contact with the rotating blade, Birmingham Magistrates’ Court was told. He sustained a severed hand a wrist.An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found PES, which supplies prefabricated pipework for commercial and industrial applications, had incorrectly installed the machine in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The failure meant it could be operated from a position that took the operator very close to the saw’s moving blade.