National Day of Mourning – What’s the leading cause of workplace-related deaths in Canada?

What’s the leading cause of workplace-related deaths in Canada? Surprisingly, it’s asbestos.

Each year, Canada recognizes April 28 as the National Day of Mourning for workers injured or killed in the workplace. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupation Health and Safety, in 2018, 1027 workplace fatalities were recorded in Canada, an increase of 76 from the previous year. Among these deaths were 27 young workers aged 15-24.

When it comes to workplace fatalities, young workers are especially vulnerable. As new workers, their lack of experience and training can often place them in dangerous situations. In addition, young workers are less likely to know about their right to refuse unsafe work and may not have the confidence to speak up when presented with dangerous tasks.

Like young workers, recent immigrants are also vulnerable for many of the same reasons. Because they often find themselves performing physically demanding work, newcomers to Canada are at increased risk of workplace injuries.

However, not all work fatalities are the result of immediate and present dangers. In Canada, asbestos exposure is the leading cause of workplace-related deaths.

In Canada, there has been a steady increase of mesothelioma diagnoses. Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of lung cancer, usually caused by exposure to asbestos. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “more than 80% of men with mesothelioma were likely exposed to asbestos in the workplace.”

In addition, the CMAJ points out that “there are about 2 asbestos-related cases of lung cancer for every mesothelioma.”

Workers in the mining and construction sectors are at a higher risk of exposure.

What makes this a particularly challenging issue for unions and compensation boards is that mesothelioma “is generally not diagnosed until 30 or more years after the first exposure.” The cases that are being diagnosed today are the result of exposure that occurred in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Because of the long period between exposure and the onset of symptoms, we are likely to see more asbestos-related deaths in the coming years.

And because symptoms take so long to develop, it can make it difficult for workers to prove their case to a compensation board; 30 years down the line, it may be difficult for workers to substantiate their exposure with the proper evidence.

Only about one-third of those with a diagnosis of mesothelioma receive compensation, probably because the majority do not file a claim. Adjudication of claims for other potentially asbestos-related cancers differs by province, and it is likely that a smaller proportion of these cancers result in a claim.

Canadian cancer statistics at a glance: mesothelioma, Loraine D. Marrett, Larry F. Ellison and Dagny Dryer

It goes without saying that workers who are exposed to asbestos should follow all current safety precautions. In addition, these workers should be advised to raise the issue with their doctor, in order to properly record the exposure. Documents from the employer acknowledging the exposure should also be kept in a safe place.

After years of producing and exporting asbestos, Canada finally instituted a ban on the mineral in late 2018.

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