Fire Capt. Barry Quinn says new technology, including better
breathing equipment, has reduced the chance of a firefighter being injured on
the job, but it's still hard to avoid exposure to a cocktail of potentially
dangerous substances. (BLAIR GABLE/SUN)
When Capt. Claude Levesque
died last year after 37 years of firefighting, his casket was wrapped in a
Canadian flag and placed in the back of a fire truck draped in black.
An honour guard flanked the truck as it drove from Fire Station No. 57 on
Beechwood Ave. to the funeral.
Levesque didn't die when a burning house
collapsed or while pulling a child to safety but firefighting killed him just
The Workers Safety and Insurance Board recognized that it
was decades of breathing toxic fumes from burning buildings that caused the
brain cancer that killed him.
"My dad dedicated his life to the service
of others," daughter Johanne Levesque said. "He gave up his life. He accepted
his fate with courage and strength. Firefighters are the only people I know who
are running into burning buildings while the rest of us are leaving. That is
what they do."
Across Ontario, about 850 firefighters are sick or have
died of illnesses they link to toxins given off by burning materials, including
plastics, tar and asbestos.
The minority whose cancers have been
officially recognized as work-related are counted in a disturbing trend.
While for most Canadians work is safer than ever, the number of people
literally dying to work is rising --not falling.
The national rate of
fatal accidents has increased while the rate of reported cases of people
sickening and dying -- like Levesque decades later -- has doubled.
1,097 workplace fatalities Canada-wide in 2005 were almost evenly split between
accidents and disease. A decade earlier, accidents outnumbered disease deaths
two to one.
Nearly two-thirds of deaths from occupational diseases
--and 30% of all workplace fatalities --are caused by exposure to one deadly
Nearly five workers are now dying every workday,
argues Andrew Sharpe, an economist at the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of
Living Standards and the co-author of a new study on workplace deaths.
The number of workplace fatalities jumped by almost a fifth between
2004 and 2005 alone.
"Workplace fatalities in Canada are actually going
up, not down," Sharpe says. "More people are getting killed. It was three
people (a workday) 30 years ago. A lot of those are people dying of cancer.
That's still dying on the job.
"People should not lose their life when
they go to work."
As deaths from occupational diseases spike,
on-the-job accidents aren't dropping.
Sharpe's new study shows that
while time-loss injuries have fallen by a third since the early 1990s, the rate
of fatal accidents actually increased slightly over the past decade.
Fatal accidents are concentrated in a handful of high-risk jobs -- including
fishing, mining and construction --and among men, who are 30 times more at risk
than female workers, who traditionally work in safer industries.
"There's been so much stress on workplace safety yet it doesn't seem to have
any effect on fatal accidents," Sharpe said.
Experts can't pinpoint why
injuries are falling fast while fatalities stay the same or rise, said Dr.
Cameron Mustard, president of the Institute for Work and Health.
Experts believe there are fewer injury claims because the economy has shifted
from industrial to service-sector jobs and the workers' compensation system may
lag at recognizing the new dangers of work, such as repetitive strain
The same trend isn't true for deaths.
troubling. It means they're not exactly the same thing," Mustard said. "While
the world of work seems to be becoming safer over time, there are still too
many opportunities for people to get into situations where they are at risk of
dying. I think it has to do with the special challenges of protecting workers
in work which is dangerous
." Traditionally dangerous jobs --forestry
and construction for example --are still dangerous.
number of people dying of diseases they got on the job --most after age 65
--now rivals the number of people killed in accidents.
Cancer is now
the number one cause of workplace deaths.
While those statistics are
startling, Mustard stresses they are largely the result of past --not present
-- workplace hazards.
"The rising occupational disease fatality numbers
are telling us a story not about today but 20 or 30 years ago," he said. But an
illness or death is only listed in occupational injury statistics if a doctor
links it to the workplace and a claim is accepted by a workers' compensation
"We underestimate the amount of disease in working age and
retired patients that has part of its origins in work exposures," Mustard said.
"It has a lot to do with how complicated it is for a physician to see the
LINKS HARD TO ESTABLISH
While some links are clear
--for example deadly mesothelioma in asbestos workers -- some are more
One B.C. study found that while there are an estimated 15,000
cases of work-related asthma in the province, only 500 people filed workers'
Mustard suspects that's because a doctor is more
likely to ask a patient about smoking or pets than whether they work on a dusty
construction site or use lung-irritating chemicals.
The good news for
most of us is that workplaces are healthier and safer than ever before, Mustard
He cites the near elimination of second-hand smoke as a workplace
change that will pay future health dividends.
"There's no doubt that
work is safer in the last 50 years. It's safer in the sense fewer and fewer
workers are injured as a result of traumatic injury," Mustard said.
"The risk of workers contracting a disease as a result of their work -- often
10 or 15 years later -- is less than 30 or 50 years ago. There's no reason to
expect that we can't continue making it safer."
Industry, unions and
government are working to make work safer with a host of new initiatives, such
as campaigns aimed at young workers and an Ontario Ministry of Labour project
targeting the 2% of workplaces with the most injuries.
Standards Association recently launched a new voluntary standard to help
companies integrate a patchwork of government regulations to reduce the
It would cost a small company about $5,000 to implement it.
Even if you don't care about the people who work for you, you should
care about the costs of injuries and deaths," CSA vice-president John Walter
said bluntly. "Legal bills, retraining workers, health costs --this isn't a
good way to spend a company's resources."
The Canadian Auto Workers,
meanwhile, has launched the Prevent Cancer Campaign and Cancer Care Ontario has
proposed a new way to examine workplaces for carcinogens.
firefighters are better protected than ever.
New ways of tracking
firefighters at blazes have reduced the risks they face in burning buildings.
Better breathing apparatus -- and an end to the culture of the "smoke eater" --
mean they're breathing less toxic smoke than ever.
"They're much better today than 20 years ago or even 10
years ago or five years ago," said Capt. Barry Quinn of the Ottawa Professional
Firefighters Association. "But we're always going to be exposed to a cocktail
Firefighters are fighting for legislation that would
automatically recognize a series of ailments as work-related.
to make sure when one of our guys contracts cancer he knows his family will be
taken care of," Quinn said.
"It's proven the firefighting is causing
these deaths. We treat those deaths exactly as if a guy went through a roof or
a wall fell on him and he was crushed.
"We don't have the luxury of
saying we're not going in. Other workers in Ontario have the right to refuse
dangerous work -we don't."
--- HURTING FOR CHANGE
- In 2005,
1,097 Canadians died because of workplace accidents and disease; 350,000 more
get hurt or sick annually
- Cancer is now the leading cause of
- Canada has the worst rate of reducing workplace
fatalities over 20 years among OECD countries, according to a Canadian Centre
for the Study of Living Standards study
- Workplace injuries dropped by
almost one-fifth from 1980 to 2001 but fatalities fell by only 6.6% over the
same period --the smallest drop in the OECD
- 3% of Canada's GDP is
spent on treating sick and injured workers