British Columbia Raises Stakes on Asbestos Safety

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By Peter Menyasz

British Columbia is hiking its effort to protect the province’s construction workers from asbestos-related disease by warning contractors of the costs that poor regulatory compliance can impose on their businesses.

A new education campaign by WorkSafeBC, the province’s health and safety and workers’ compensation agency, responds to a continued high rate of asbestos-related deaths—with 44 such deaths in 2017 so far—by warning the province’s 15,000 contractors that cutting corners on dealing with asbestos could hurt them financially and mar their reputation.

The campaign is intended to be a “reminder” to contractors that they need to properly manage asbestos to protect their workers’ health and to protect their reputation in a highly competitive construction market, Al Johnson, vice president of prevention services at WorkSafeBC, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 21.

WorkSafeBC has 15 officers based in Vancouver focusing on asbestos and renovation work, and the agency has agreements with three municipalities to notify it when new demolition permits are issued so officers can follow up with inspections, he said.

The safety agency has issued asbestos-related penalties totaling more than C$2.1 million ($1.68 million) to date in 2017. Penalties have ranged in size from C$109,400 ($87,520) issued to the Dollar Tree Stores Canada Inc. for allegedly allowing employees to work near broken floor tiles previously identified as asbestos-containing; to C$628,000 ($502,000) issued to the Vernon School District #2, for renovation workers allegedly having a high risk of disturbing asbestos-containing materials.

Industry Adds Support

The agency’s message to contractors should be influential because the contractors are in business to make money, according to Mike McKenna, executive director of the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance.

“If the boss cares about an issue, by extension their workers do as well,” McKenna told Bloomberg BNA.

The threat of enforcement for violations—including stop work orders and fines—also can increase the likelihood of improved asbestos abatement because companies want to protect their reputation, McKenna said. “If you really want them to care about an issue, make the issue relevant to that concept of ‘follow the money.’”

The campaign’s approach is intended to help convince contractors to do the right thing rather than face potential enforcement action, he said.

“We’re not trying to be threatening,” Johnson said. “We’re out there with our officers catching them doing it right. We’re not trying to catch them doing it wrong.”

The new campaign by WorkSafeBC follows a three-month education blitz that targeted homeowners undertaking renovation or demolition projects, Johnson said. Demolitions are particularly popular in Vancouver and the broader Lower Mainland, where older homes are being taken down to make way for modern ones.

Unions Remain Skeptical

Unions have supported previous education campaigns and enhanced enforcement efforts, but the number of deaths remains too high, Lee Loftus, business manager at Vancouver-based Insulators Local 188, told Bloomberg BNA.

With 44 asbestos-related deaths in 2017, statistics confirm that further education and enforcement is needed, Johnson said. During the first six months of this year, health and safety inspectors issued 60 stop work orders and 30 fines for asbestos-related violations at construction sites.

The recent deaths are related to work that was done decades ago, but education and enforcement can help protect future deaths, Johnson said.

WorkSafeBC data show 1,026 deaths in British Columbia between 1996 and 2016 directly related to asbestos exposure, of which 342 were in the construction sector. Of the overall death toll, 62 percent were due to mesothelioma, 17 percent from asbestosis, 10 percent from malignant neoplasms, 6 percent from other forms of cancer, and 3 percent from unattributed causes.

“Those are phenomenal numbers, and they’re not going to end this near, next year, or the year after, and it’s not going to end until we fix it,” Loftus, also president of the British Columbia and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, told Bloomberg BNA. “It will go on for 30 to 40 years.”

Asbestos Remains Major Issue

Asbestos is particularly prevalent in the construction sector, as it was present in more than 3,000 building materials used in homes built before 1990, and can be released into the air when the materials are drilled, sawed, sanded, or broken up during renovation or demolition, WorkSafeBC said.

Without protective equipment, workers can breathe in the asbestos fibers, permanently damaging their lungs and potentially causing death, the agency said. It can take 10 to 40 years between exposure and the start of disease, it said.

Annual data is relatively consistent, with 60 deaths in 2016, 48 in 2015, 76 in 2014, 59 in 2013, and 67 in 2012. About 96 percent of the victims were men, and 89 percent of the deaths were in the 56-70 and 70-85 age groups.

The occupations with the most asbestos-related deaths over the 20-year period were carpenters (5.4 percent), construction trades helpers and laborers (4.8 percent), steamfitters, pipefitters and sprinkler system installers (4.2 percent), plumbers (3.3 percent), and construction millwrights and industrial mechanics (3.2 percent).

While construction workers are by far the most likely to die after asbestos exposure in British Columbia, it has also been a significant issue in other sectors between 1996 and 2016:

  • manufacturing with 320 deaths;
  • services with 157 deaths;
  • transportation and warehousing with 68 deaths, and
  • primary resources sectors—such as mining, fisheries, and agriculture—with 45 deaths.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Menyasz in Ottawa at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at

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