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Wed, November 22, 2006
Fight to the death
Luis Bachmann turned out to support protests against the
Wcb, although dying of silicosis
This is the story of Ralph and Luis, two men who became
good friends while trying to do the right thing. Like all good things, it came
to an end. And it hasn't been a happy one.
Ralph Teed is still around to talk about it. He fought the
Workers' Compensation Board for 20 years to get all of the benefits he was due.
But Teed figures he wouldn't have become politically active and started
advocating for other injured workers through public protests - contributing to
government promises to review outstanding contentious WCB claims - if it hadn't
been for Luis.
"See this?" Teed says, sliding a handful of pictures across
the kitchen table of his modest north Edmonton home. "This is the reason why we
got really started in doing this."
The picture is of a toilet bowl. It is full of blood,
phlegm and chunks of meat. "This came out of a friend of mine I met back in
1995, Luis Bachmann. And for whatever reason, he took to me. This is what his
family watched him do: slowly barf out his lungs until there was almost nothing
"My story is nothing compared to his, because Luis is dead.
And if you want to talk about the b***s*** within the WCB, this is the man to
talk about. He came to this country from South America and spent every minute
of his 20 years here fighting to better himself, to educate himself, to train
himself so he could work hard and build a better life for his family. And he
ended up dying here with nobody there for him outside his family and friends."
Bachmann was employed at a south-side sandblasting shop.
One of the byproducts of the operation - which Bachmann claimed was never
ventilated and at which workers routinely were unprotected - was a lung
"It took him years to die," Teed says quietly. "And the
whole time was spent fighting the WCB. He suffered more than anyone I know but
he was a very brave man, so he suffered quietly."
Getting basic disability coverage proved near impossible,
because the WCB argued the silicosis could have been caused by work he'd done
in South America. Even after he got some disability support, Bachmann couldn't
get basic renovations to his house to prevent his lung disease worsening.
Bachmann blamed his problems in part on Alberta
Occupational Health and Safety, saying the agency inspected his former employer
in 1987 and warned it to be wary of silica dust problems, but then never
followed up for compliance.
Within two years, Bachmann was coughing up bloody phlegm
regularly and experiencing chest pains. He applied to the WCB for retraining in
electronics to find a safer form of work, but was turned down. He wrote
numerous letters to politicians and the agency to illustrate his problems.
"In the morning, when I had to wash myself, the toilet
became red of blood, had to flush it up to five times, every morning trying to
hide the blood from the eyes of my wife and children," Bachmann wrote in a 2000
summary. "Wanted to minimize the anguish already developed upon them."
Medication helped, but the WCB refused to pick up the $500
tab until former cabinet minister Peter Trynchy, after reading a letter from
Bachmann, championed his cause. After paying the claim, the WCB arranged a
meeting with Bachmann at which he was told he was not able to find suitable
work because of his English. "He said I could work in a bakery as a millwright,
a job I had left twice because of incapacity.
"WCB refused any investment in academic training because
(the case worker) said it was well known to her that silicosis from
sandblasting is devastating. Injured workers have a limit of four years to live
after silicosis is declared."
When he asked to see his WCB file, it came back missing a
registered letter he'd sent to the board and with another unopened, but with an
explanation that his case manager, to whom it was addressed, no longer worked
there. And he had missed a deadline, he was told, to appeal for benefits.
He was turned down for dental benefits because, even though
an allergic reaction to an antibiotic for his silicosis caused all of his teeth
to fall out in a 10-day period, it wasn't directly related to his injury. It
also cost him some of his sight.
When he took a taxi in the middle of the winter to
University hospital, the WCB turned down the $31.80 round trip bill arguing
that he could have taken a bus, even though it was -18 C that day.
When he asked for new carpeting to replace the decades-old
material in their rental unit that exacerbated his lung problems, they turned
"When I got sick and the unemployment insurance benefit was
over, we had only two meals a day," he wrote.
"My three kids - the younger born here in Edmonton - were
in school. They had a piece of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast and came
back to another portion similar after school. The two older were able to
tolerate (being) hungry, and could go to work if they could find a part-time
Undaunted, but by this point largely confined to his
bedroom, Bachmann wrote to Dunford and other MLAs and ministers. Dunford
replied, "I believe you realize I am responsible only for the legislation of
the Workers' Compensation Board and do not have direct control over the WCB
decisions or their employees."
- - -
Of course, that was September 2000 and although some of
their contents had already been leaked - indicating someone knew that the
contentious claims tribunal would be recommended - Dunford had yet to announce
the results of two committee reports that would eventually support the position
put forward by Teed, Bachmann and scores of others.
That came two months later. At the same time, Luis decided
to venture out of the safety of his house and to join the injured workers
protesting in front of the WCB. Teed had pitched a pup tent, but been taken to
hospital after it filled with carbon monoxide from a camp stove.
"He came out during the last protests and I know it
shortened his life to come and see me," says Teed. "I'd almost killed myself in
that stupid tent.
"But he's the reason I kept fighting. And they did
eventually win some benefits, but the WCB treated his wife just as badly as
they'd treated him."
Luis lasted for three more years before the silicosis
killed him at age 63, a day after he talked to his family in Chile one more
time and heard them read poetry the quiet South American had penned over the
years. At the time of his death, he was a shadow of his strong former self but
right up until the end, says Teed, he fought like a lion.
"He was so brave, like nothing I ..."
Teed stops talking for a minute and reaches across the
kitchen table for the photos. The emotion tied to Luis's memory is strong,
because it's born of a conviction he thinks Bachmann died for. "He really
believed, I think, right up until the end that someone would come forward at
some point and do the right thing. And all through that, all through those
letters, he advocated for other workers because he thought they needed help,
and it was the right thing to do. But no one helped him. And he died."
- - -
By then, the government's promise of establishing a
contentious complaints tribunal in 2002 had come and gone unheeded. And a
massive lobby campaign by Alberta businesses had obviously been effective:
twice during legislature sessions, Dunford insisted the contentious claims
tribunal was no longer a government priority.
However, he didn't outright say that it was dead in the
water. In fact, the government has never actually said it won't fulfil its
promise. Officially, the last word was that it was just mere moments away from
establishing one, what MLA Denis Herard referred to in 2002 as "on the brink."
Instead, Dunford just let it lie. It wasn't as if he wasn't
getting regular reminders from injured workers that there were problems. In
fact, that summer Edmonton advocate Kevin Becker wrote to Dunford and WCB CEO
Guy Kerr to tell them the WCB had a policy in place of withholding surveillance
evidence, clearly contrary to the Workers' Compensation Act.
Becker never heard back from Kerr - who refused requests
for an interview for this series - or from Dunford, and it took nearly two more
years before provincial ombudsman Gord Button wrote to him to tell him he was
right, by which time he'd found six more cases. Even after that, the
ombudsman's office did not follow through on its promise to inform him of any
action in the case.
During that time, the Human Resources department got a new
minister. And the new minister, Mike Cardinal, wasted no time. By April 2005,
he'd made it clear that as far as he, the WCB and anyone else he considered
important was concerned, there was no problem with contentious claims.
It was no longer a cost issue; there were no longer
suggestions the department would have to rob AISH to pay WCB. It just wasn't
"That particular area, of course, has been dealt with in
this House for a long, long period of time," Cardinal said.
"Working with the Workers' Compensation, of course, we've
tried to improve the existing appeals process that is in place and being used.
The process that's in place will allow that for any applicant or any file
that's in existence, any time you have new information, you can bring that file
forward and we'll deal with it."
It was an interesting statement: Cardinal either didn't
understand the problem or was talking in circles.
The contentious claims tribunal had nothing to do with "new
information," and in fact by design would have only dealt with unfair case
management, something that is not a ground for appeal under any existing board
Either way, the contentious claims tribunal - and the hopes
of injured workers who'd cried foul for decades - were as dead as Luis
Bachmann. When contacted about the issue again last week, a spokesman for the
minister repeated the position but would not explain why the government no
longer thinks the contentious claims tribunal is necessary.