The deaths of B.C. workers have long prompted calls for a ban on asbestos and better regulation of its handling in the workplace.
Those call are finally being answered. On Dec. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced a full asbestos ban and a creation of new rules and regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protections Act (CEPA) that they hope will be enacted by 2018.
Among a variety of measures, the federal government hopes to change national building codes to keep asbestos from being used in any new construction or renovation projects, as well as banning the import of asbestos-containing products such as brake pads.
“We are taking action that is long overdue, and we are doing it in the best possible way,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said. “Our government is taking action to protect Canadians from substances such as asbestos that can be harmful to their health and safety.”
There has also been a strong push in B.C. to create a licensing and certification system for asbestos removal contractors and workers in order to reduce the amount of people who are exposed to asbestos, a deadly substance that kills over 2,000 people in Canada each year.
A resolution in favour of creating a licensing system for asbestos-removal contractors and mandatory certification was put up for a vote at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention in September 2016, but did not reach the floor in time for a motion. The resolution is widely expected to pass and will now be considered by the resolution committee at a meeting in February.
For advocates of tighter regulations in an industry where thousands have lost their lives from exposure to the deadly mineral, the disappointment of not having a resolution passed at the convention is mitigated by the prospects of being able to change how some companies operate.
Asbestos is a stealth killer that was used extensively in construction for most of the 20th century because of its low cost, resistance to fire, and insulating properties. Its fibres are invisible to the naked eye.
When inhaled, the fibres can become trapped in the lining of the lungs for up to 40 years before causing deadly cancers such as mesothelioma.In B.C., 26 workers died during the first six months of 2016 from asbestos exposure. Forty-two died in 2015. The precautions that must be taken to protect workers during construction and demolition are often in conflict with contractors’ desire to get jobs done quickly. Effective regulation could make a difference.
The enforcement challenges under the industry’s existing regulations were underscored by a B.C. Supreme Court decision in February that involved WorkSafeBC and a local asbestos-removal company.
Seattle Environmental Consulting Ltd. and Skyline Building Maintenance Ltd. were issued 237 violations of rules and regulations from 2009 to 2012 by WorkSafeBC, the agency whose mandate is to prevent workplace injury and illness in B.C.
In 2012, WorkSafeBC got a court order against Seattle Environmental owner Mike Singh, who has managed both companies, and son Shawn Singh that prohibited them from exposing workers to asbestos. The following year, court found the Singhs to be in contempt of that order.
Since then, WorkSafeBC claim that the Singhs continued to issue clearance that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) had been removed from homes before demolitions or renovations, even though the agency’s later inspections showed that asbestos remained. These violations prompted WorkSafeBC’s latest contempt petition against the Singhs.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice George Macintosh dismissed the petition, however. He ruled that the Singhs would have required “a comprehensive knowledge” of both the province’s Workers’ Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulation in order to obey the 2012 court order. The 2012 order could only be enforced if it laid out clearly and specifically what the Singhs needed to do or not do, the judge ruled.
Mike Singh said following the February, 2016, court ruling that Seattle Environmental had no plans to leave the industry.
“We follow the rules and regulations. We don’t expose people. I want to make it clear,” Singh said at that time.
Seattle Environmental was fined again last December, bringing the total amount to more than $500,000 since 2012. Most of the fines have been for issuing clearance letters at locations where samples later tested for airborne asbestos fibres came back positive.
B.C. Insulators business manager Lee Loftus has been one of the leading voices lobbying all three levels of government for a comprehensive strategy to limit the number of people exposed to asbestos, and address the problem of unscrupulous contractors.
In February, after Singh made his proclamation on the courthouse steps, Loftus stood there as well, flabbergasted by what had transpired in the courtroom.
“Here we have an employer that has hundreds of violations. He knows what the law is, he knows what the regulations are, and the judge has ignored that,” Loftus said.
“We’re talking asbestos here. We’re talking about things that take people’s lives.”
Loftus has long been concerned about contractors operating within the grey area of a largely unregulated industry. Recently, the accelerating rate of home demolitions during Vancouver’s real-estate boom has brought more urgency to the problem. With Metro Vancouver facing an unprecedented number of demolitions — more than 14,000 homes were torn down between 2011 and 2015 alone — Loftus believes some contractors are cutting corners in order to maximize profits, with a disregard for the safety of both workers and the public.
WorkSafeBC has shifted the focus of its enforcement in the past five years, from commercial and industrial facilities to housing demolitions and renovations.
In 2011 they dedicated a team of inspectors to tackle the problem in residential areas. At the time, the team was mostly focused on general violations, but saw that before a new house could be built, an old one had to be torn down. They found most asbestos work was not being done to a standard that would protect people from being exposed from asbestos fibres.
The primary function is to tightly enforce rules and regulations through inspections. There has been a marked improvement in the amount of penalties they have assessed companies since focusing on asbestos. In 2013, they issued 22 penalties on over 1,000 inspections; in 2015 there were 57 penalties imposed in 903 inspections. Many of the team members have backgrounds in occupational hygiene that includes identifying and controlling exposures to harmful substances.
According to Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention services for WorkSafeBC, there’s a disconnect between what people know about asbestos and what they should be doing about it.
“Generally speaking, most British Columbians know about asbestos,” Johnson said. “But they don’t know if they have it in their houses, and they certainly don’t know that they should be doing something about it before they renovate or demolish in order to protect workers.”
Almost all homes built before 1990 have some type of asbestos-containing materials that will need to be dealt with eventually. On Nov. 21, WorkSafeBC launched an awareness campaign targeting homeowners who are either considering or already undertaking renovations of those homes.
Research from WorkSafeBC shows that only 36 per cent of homeowners who renovated a pre-1990 built home remember testing for asbestos previous to doing the work. One-third of people surveyed didn’t even know that they should look for or test for the presence of asbestos in their homes.
Asbestos can be found in more than 3,000 types of building materials, from pipe insulation to linoleum flooring.
The City of Vancouver was one of the first municipalities in British Columbia to require a completed hazardous materials survey before issuing a demolition permit in 2013. But the absence of a similar policy in other municipalities has led to a number of contractors issuing their own “clearance letters” — post-removal inspection reports saying all asbestos-containing materials have been removed from a house or building.
Municipalities “should not issue a demolition permit unless they have in their hand an assessment for hazards, an inventory (of the asbestos) and evidence it has been removed. That place should be guaranteed to be safe,” Loftus said. “So when a contractor drives into Coquitlam and brings an 80-year-old excavator and it rolls over a house, the people next door need to know that their decks won’t be covered in asbestos.”
B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger believes B.C. is in a unique position to lead the country in enacting legislation because of its stringent regulation of the industry. She also believes there is still a lot of work to be done giving WorkSafeBC more teeth to enforce penalties on contractors who willingly disobey the law.
“People are dying, people are being put at risk, and we have to have stronger rules and stronger systems in place,” Lanzinger said. “That’s when government should do what government does, and that’s put safeguards in place to keep people from being harmed.”
WorkSafe often enforces through stop-work orders and fines. The problem with many companies is that they don’t have the asset base to pay fines, so they simply close up shop — only to reopen for business under a new name just months later.
The desire to get some sort of legislation to protect workers is nearly unanimous among municipalities. If UBCM approves the resolution as expected, it would put pressure on the provincial government to address the issue before the 2017 provincial election.
Loftus believes the UBCM resolution will lead to a groundbreaking piece of legislation because of the amount of protections that workers and the public are afforded. It can be a win-win scenario for workers and whatever political party takes the important step of implementing it.
“This will be one of the last steps to finalize the asbestos crisis in British Columbia,” Loftus says. “It takes care of the demolition issue, the renovation issue and it’ll give local governments the authority to immediately resolve those that misbehave.”