Worker Health and Safety In Ontario Mines

The Ministry of Labour’s announcement to provide $1 million in funding to help study potential links between exposure to McIntyre Powder and neurological disease is an important victory for Ontario’s mine workers. Doubtless, the funding would not have come without the efforts of Janice Martell, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and the United Steelworkers, who have been pressing the Ontario government to commit to funding a study for the past 4 years.

The history of occupational health and safety in Ontario’s mines, though, has offered few reasons to celebrate.

Between 1943 and 1980, Ontario gold and uranium mine workers were forced to inhale McIntyre Powder – a finely ground aluminum dust – prior to entering the mines as a condition of employment. According to union activists, some companies made workers who refused the “treatment” sign waivers, forfeiting their right to make compensation claims for illness.

Companies abruptly ended treatments in 1980, following the publication of Lloyd Tataryn’s book Dying for a Living, which severely criticized the practice. In the same year, the Ontario Ministry of Labour issued two reports recommending the practice be stopped; both were published after the companies had already decided to do so.

The powder was the mining industry’s answer to silicosis, a debilitating lung disease caused by excessive exposure to silica dust, a common substance in Ontario mines. As early as the 1930s, the measures required to prevent silicosis – ventilation systems and other dust control mechanisms – were well understood. But they were also expensive.

The mining companies’ main concern in terms of worker health and safety was to minimize costs. McIntyre Powder was much cheaper than installing expensive ventilation systems, even if there was no scientific evidence to back the industry’s claim that it prevented silicosis. The choice, from the company’s perspective, was an easy one.

The industry had other ways of limiting its compensation payments. Using chest x-rays, companies weeded out potential workers whose lungs showed any sign of weakness, and, at times, simply fired workers who were showing signs of developing the disease.

It was not until 1983 that the government of Ontario enacted a law limiting mine workers’ exposure to silica. Before that, the government issued “codes of requirements” based on industry-sponsored research of best practices. But these codes had no force of law, and so there was little government inspectors — who tended to be former mine employees in any case — could do when mines exceeded them.

Needless to say, the industry resisted the government’s silica regulations, weakening them significantly. When it came to other toxic substances, like arsenic, the government simply provided sweeping exemptions for mining companies, which remain in place to this day.

The industry’s indifference to the health of the working people that have made its profits possible is staggering. In the midst of a health and safety crisis, the Ontario government conducted a study of the mortality of Ontario miners who worked in the industry from 1955-1977, releasing the report in 1983. Globe and Mail reporter Victor Malarek described the report’s findings: “it suggests that a tragedy of considerable proportions is unfolding.”

The study found that 300 mixed ore miners had died of lung cancer, a rate 45 percent higher than the general population; 60 gold miners had died of stomach cancer, “a death rate 48 per cent higher than that in the general population.” Further, “silicosis and chronic interstitial pneumonia had claimed the lives of 111 underground gold miners and 68 mixed ore miners. Respectively, those figures are about 1,600 per cent and 2,000 per cent higher than would normally be found in the general population.”

But as union activists argued – and the researchers admitted – comparing mineworkers to the “general population” was flawed. This was because the mining companies tended to hire only the healthiest applicants. Had a more representative sample of the “general population” worked in the mines, the outcomes likely would have been even worse, an unsettling hypothetical.

Industrial disease remains a major problem among Ontario mine workers, in spite of industry propaganda to the contrary. In 2014, the Ministry of Labour’s Mining Health and Safety Review – which was prompted by a tragic workplace fatality – noted that “While traumatic fatality incidents in the mining sector have declined substantially over the past several decades, deaths related to occupational illness have not.”

Seven percent of the WSIB’s allowed claims for occupational death were related to the mining sector – a figure “roughly ten times the proportion of the insured workforce engaged in mining work.” Between 2004 and 2013, the WSIB had allowed 171 claims for occupational death related to mining. This means that, on average, 17 Ontario mine workers die every year from diseases related to their work.

Clearly, there remains much to be done when it comes to improving workers’ health and safety in Ontario mines. The $1 million pledge to study the effects of McIntyre Powder is just a start.