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Urgent Need to Investigate Respiratory Impairment of Hemlo Miners

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

Almost five years after the Globe and Mail published a full page story that raised an alarm about silicosis among gold miners in the Hemlo Camp in northern Ontario, little has changed.

The Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers explains silicosis this way:

“Breathing dust containing free crystalline silica is a potential health hazard because it may allow some of the smaller particles of silica to deposit in the lungs. The body tries to break down the particles to remove them from the lung. While the body tries to remove the particles, tissue may be damaged. The damaged tissue forms hard inelastic scar tissue in the lungs which may lead to a disease known as silicosis. The accumulated dust and scar tissue form small masses that are scattered throughout the lungs. These small masses may join together forming large masses of scar tissue. These scars make the lungs stiff and interfere with the transfer of oxygen into the blood. The heart must work harder to pump blood through the stiff lungs. This added strain may lead to failure of the right side of the heart.”

On October 22, 2004, in the face of a 10% increase in the number of silicosis cases in Ontario, the United Steelworkers called on the Ontario Government to review the Silica Monitoring Program at all mines. “We want the Minister of Labour to reinstate the Mining Master File, as well as the traveling chest clinics, which was eliminated in 1995. These clinics provided proper and accurate records of exposures and occupational disease.”

On March 23, 2006, Nancy Hutchinson, National Occupational Health and Safety Director with the United Steelworkers of America, says that “there is definitely a problem at the Hemlo Camp, and it is being downplayed by the companies and the government... We think the problem may be associated with silica-containing shotcrete used in paste backfill.”

Silicosis, sarcoidosis and asthma are still disabling workers, and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (previously known as the Workers Compensation Board) is still refusing to honour most of the claims brought before them.

There are three gold mines at Hemlo: David Bell, Williams, and Golden Giant. Only the Williams Mine is without a union. The Golden Giant Mine is now closed. David Bell and Williams are a joint venture owned by Teck Cominco and Barrick. A vote to certify a union at Williams was lost last year.

For Michael Clancy, a 51 year old former miner with lungs that are now 30% impaired, the issue of silicosis in the Hemlo Camp is a very personal one.

A non-smoking father of two teenagers, Clancy had worked at Williams since 1985, first as a labourer in the electrical department, then in the warehouse. In 1992, he transferred underground and worked as a nipper usuing primarily he boom truck and two yard forklift, then he moved into production, where he operated the Rock-breaker, Scooptram and a JDT426 truck for hauling backfill. Throughout this time, constant exposure to airborne crystailline silica as well as diesel exhaust was probable.

Clancy was forced to give up working in his lucrative underground mining job at the Williams Mine when he got the results of a regular chest x-ray on November 2, 1999. His doctor at the Marathon Family Practice told him he had “findings consistent with silicosis.” This diagnosis was confirmed by a CT scan and the opinion of a respirologist in Thunder Bay.

There is no cure for silicosis, but removal from the source of the silica will usually arrest the disease. In 2000, Clancy was transferred to the warehouse, with a substantial cut in pay, where he found that he continued to be exposed to silica-laden dust blowing in from areas such as the open pit. He applied for Workers Compensation, hoping he could get retraining and get out away from the pollutants. He received a wage loss subsidy for a short period, but no pension.

In early autumn of 2005, a lung biopsy for suspected cancer found that he had “sarcoidosis”( an autoimmune disease that affects the lungs). Respirologist Dr. Susan Tarlo said that “We cannot rule out underlying silicotic compromise, in the context of occupational exposure.” An article in Occupational Health Medicine in 1998 found a strong association between silicosis and sarcoidosis.

Clancy personally knows at least four other men who work in the camp who have silicosis. There are many others with other respiratory impairment, including asthma.

A Ministry of Labour field visit on Sept 17, 2003 (#5091817) found that of 28 air samples taken during mucking operations from January to August, 2003, 7 exceeded the limits, and 2 were in the order of 0.4 mg/m3. In Ontario, since September 2000, the exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica is set at 0.1 mg/m3.

The inspector asked, “Why can’t back-fill muck be wetted? Why is there no ventilation into a dump access?” There were no questions about the possible effects on worker health from such massive exposure. Individuals who are exposed to extremely high levels over a short period from a few weeks to four or five years, may develop acute silicosis.

Clancy and his fellow miners want the answer to three questions:

• When will the Ontario Government call a public inquiry to address the lung diseases afflicting Hemlo workers, as was asked for in a media release dated June 20, 2002 by Thunder Bay Superior North MP Michael Gravelle, while he was sitting on the Opposition benches?

• Why has the mine operator not been fined when samples show they are exceeding the legislated regulation limits in the workplace?

• Why have Clancy and other miners with a history of work exposure to elevated silica levels not received WSIB pensions?