Monday, October 15, 2012

Cancers allegedly caused by GE working conditions

Source: Metroland News:
Roger Fowler has no doubt his time at General Electric is the reason he's been wearing a colostomy bag for the last 20 years. Diagnosed with cancer at age 46, he knew his life would change. His two children were eight and nine years old. He would never return to work. His pension is only a portion of his earnings from 1992, which doesn't add up to much today. But, reading through a list of about 15 co-workers who died of similar cancers, he counts himself lucky.

Ron LeBeau is one of those names. When his cancer was discovered, it had already spread through his body. Doctors gave him four months to live, 10 if he underwent chemotherapy. He died Feb. 9, 1995 at age 39 of stomach cancer, only two months after diagnosis and chemo treatments. A lot of time has passed, but his wife, Sandy LeBeau, is still emotional when she talks about him.

By July 1994, Ron was losing weight. By November, co-workers were covering for him since he didn't have the energy needed to do his job. The big strong man she married lost 100 pounds by the time of his death, having dropped his trademark beard and mustache.

"No one knew him," she says. ¨It's evident going through this with her husband was not easy for Ms LeBeau, but she's thankful his renovations to the house had allowed her to go into business as a hairdresser. Times were tough raising two teenage girls without a father and on a much-reduced income. Things would definitely have been a bit easier if her husband's illness and death had been officially acknowledged as a result of working conditions at GE, something she believes.

Both Ms LeBeau and Mr. Fowler are looking to have their claims reassessed as new science is able to link certain illnesses to workplace conditions.

They're hoping the Log Jam Summit held this summer might help get them the compensation and recognition they feel is due.

The summit included the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Occupational and Environmental Health Coalition of Peterborough, Ontario Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, the Office of the Worker Advisor, retirees, union members, and the families of those who died from occupational diseases.

The idea is to look into links between the workplace and disease using modern science and to address the backlog of claims.

As a response to this story, Kim Warburton, vice-president of communications and public affairs with GE, issued a statement through e-mail.

When asked if GE Peterborough employees had died from hazardous chemicals or materials from the workplace, she wrote that GE does not provide personal information on current or former employees.

GE did comply with safety standards through the 1960s to the mid-1990s, she states, which is the time Mr. Fowler and Mr. LeBeau worked there.

Having operated in Peterborough since 1892, she states that like most industrial plants in operation for more than 100 years, GE has changed business operations and established robust environmental health and safety practices.

"As industry and society in general have become aware of the potential hazards of certain materials, chemicals, in manufacturing, GE has quickly responded by phasing-out and substituting the use of many substances that were considered to have hazardous properties," she writes.

She writes that GE's health and safety program annually meets or exceeds standards from all levels of government as well as third party independent contractors. There are on-site clinics and joint health and safety committees within the unions and the use of toxic chemicals has been significantly reduced over the years.

In 1994, she writes that the health and safety committee raised in the issue of excess cancers and union members were advised to submit claims to the WSIB. In 2004, the union established on-site clinics for members and retirees to discuss health matters and apply for compensation.

Since 1994, she writes that 300 claims were filed with about 112 compensated so far. The majority of the chemical related claims date back many years, she writes, adding that GE is not aware of any health related claims from the last 20 years.

There have not been similar claims from other GE locations.

Part of the problem is the assessment process, which only looks at one type of exposure, not the cumulation of different things.

Mr. Fowler says his claim is only related to asbestos, but he knows the chemicals he worked with did not help his health.รข?¨Though he knows he was exposed to asbestos throughout his career, he has only been given partial credit for the 22.5 years he spent at GE. That means he his exposure works out to 10 years worth, but he's told he needs 15 years to qualify for compensation.

He could see it in the dust in the air as he's entered the building every morning. When forklift drivers would bump into pipes, he could see pieces of asbestos shake loose. Plus, he says it was all over his work station.

One issue that bothers him is the dangers from other work stations are not factored in, even though there were no walls between the stations.

Mr. LeBeau, he notes, likely got the worst of it since he operated the crane that ran along the ceiling where all the vapours rose. The building has since been demolished.

Since his cancer, Mr. Fowler has had surgeries annually.

The lifestyle change of having a colostomy bag has affected travel and visits with friends. His stomach sometimes acts up and has unpleasant results.

"You never get used to it," he says.

With so many co-workers who became sick, he says it's just too many to be coincidence.

He doesn't resent GE, noting he had great people to work with and the pay was great.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, he says no one said the things they were working with were dangerous. Employees even took bags of asbestos to insulate their homes, he adds.

"God knows what chemicals we used in friction motors," he says.

By the time gloves and coveralls were provided, it was too late for some.

"If I won my case, I could open the door and help people," he says.

At one point, he collapsed at work from chemical exposure, but that can't be factored into his asbestos claim. He also can't mention the growth he had removed from his throat.

He hasn't found his union to be helpful after he had to leave work and no longer pay dues. He was initially denied his claim two weeks before Christmas and it took him two months to tell his wife.

Ms LeBeau remembers how her husband used to destroy his clothes at work. If she bought him something nice to wear, she'd have to hide it to keep it clean. He'd come home with amber glass through his hair.

"Ron did think he was in a dangerous environment," she says.

Ms LeBeau lost her father and two uncles to cancer, which she aslo attributes to their time spent at GE.

"My whole family has been involved with GE," she says.

Asbestos, she says, was everywhere in his work environment, including mitts, blankets and the brakes on his crane.

He quit smoking two years before his death, but Ms LeBeau believes being a smoker hindered his workplace illness claim.

She knows no compensation could replace him.

"I talk about Ron every day," she says.

No comments:

Post a Comment