Workplace health and safety advocates are celebrating after Public Services and Procurement Canada released its long awaited national asbestos inventory. The forty-page document contains a list of every government building in Canada that contains asbestos, and its release marks a victory for health and safety advocates across the country. However, advocates also say there is still work to be done: Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, points out that the list does not contain details about precisely where the dangerous materials are located, meaning that people are not being fully informed about the the risk.
Prior to 1990, asbestos was commonly used for insulation and fireproofing buildings because of its long-lasting, fire-resistant properties. The use of asbestos slowed as revelations about the substance’s capacity to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs), became more widely known and understood. Although asbestos has fallen out of use as a construction material, many buildings constructed before 1990 still contain dangerous quantities of the substance. If left undisturbed, asbestos is generally harmless; however, when the fibres are disturbed (for example, during renovations), they can become airborne and compromise the air quality.
Howard Willems is often regarded as the face of the fight against asbestos-related disease in Saskatchewan. Willems contracted mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos at work and died of the disease in 2012. Before he died, he became a vocal advocate for asbestos research and education, co-founding the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and leading the fight for a public registry of government buildings containing asbestos.
Today there are a number of active asbestos advocacy and support groups across Canada, including the Asbestos Related Research, Education, and Advocacy fund (AREA Fund), the Asbestos Network, and many others. The pressure these groups have put on the government to produce a registry has finally been met with success.
Why a Registry is Important
There are many types of occupations that may put workers at risk of asbestos exposure. At the top of this list is construction and demolition, activities that inevitably disturb asbestos where it exists. It is essential to provide meaningful information to the people most at risk of exposure, making workers aware of every hazard they might encounter on the jobsite. A registry allows important health and safety information to be freely shared and accessible. Of course, the registry is only a small step toward realizing Howard Willems’s vision of a workplace safe from the threat of asbestos-related diseases.
Workers should ask their current employers about hazardous substances that they may be exposed to on the jobsite. Other steps workers can take include ensuring that they are properly screened and monitored when exposed to hazardous substances. SureHire offers a special asbestos-exposed worker program that aligns with provincial safety guidelines across Canada. To learn more, or to find out the regulations regarding asbestos exposure in your province, please click here.