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Asbestos exposure leads rise in deaths of B.C. construction workers

Carol Davis, widow of construction worker Donald Davis, places a rose on a memorial in Vancouver on Wednesday during a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of the Bentall tragedy, in which four construction workers plunged to their deaths.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Deaths of B.C. construction workers jumped 40 per cent last year, an increase fuelled by the number of workers who have died after being exposed to asbestos while on their jobs decades ago.

Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC's prevention service vice-president, said the situation may be worse than originally thought. He said actuarial tables estimated asbestos-related fatalities would peak between 2015 and 2020, but instead, WorkSafe is now expecting the high number of deaths to go on longer.

"We think it's because there have been more exposures and more workers working with asbestos than originally had been anticipated in industry," Mr. Johnson said.

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Last year in British Columbia, 44 construction workers died, 26 of them from exposure and 18 from trauma. In 2014, 31 construction workers died – 19 from exposures and 12 from trauma.

Asbestos – once widely used because of its resistance to fire and heat – is now considered a leading workplace killer in Canada, and is linked to about 5,000 deaths since 1996. Health issues caused by the silicate mineral include mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

On Thursday, the asbestos issue lingered in the background at the annual memorial ceremony to mark one of B.C.'s most dramatic workplace disasters.

Thirty-five years ago Thursday, four carpenters fell 36 floors to their deaths from Tower IV of the Bentall Centre while working on the structure. Family, members of the legislature, labour figures, city councillors and others attended a ceremony to honour the Tower IV victims – Gunther Couvreux, Donald Davis, Yrjo Mitrunen and Brian Stevenson.

The occasion also honoured the 44 construction workers killed in B.C. last year, with mourners laying 44 roses on a plaque remembering the accident. To make a point, 18 roses were red for workers who died of trauma; 26 were white for workers who died from exposure to substances – basically asbestos.

WorkSafeBC has recently concluded that in 2009, disease first exceeded traumatic injuries as the leading cause of work-related deaths in the province.

The agency said traumatic injuries causing death have decreased 68 per cent since 1990, while the number of occupational disease-connected deaths – largely linked to asbestos exposure – has increased.

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Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC Building Trades Council, told the ceremony earlier that he expects the number of exposure deaths to rise in coming years – "a consequence of workers having worked with asbestos."

"We have known for the last century that asbestos has been hazardous, but it has only been in the last few years that we have actually used protective equipment when we work with asbestos," he said.

He said WorkSafe BC is now diligent about processing the files of workers facing health issues due to exposure, which leads to some level of monetary compensation.

But to protect today's workers, he called for vigilance to weed out contractors who do not see to the safety of employees as they do renovation and remediation of buildings where asbestos is present. He suggested enhanced provincial inspections of the well-known "troublemakers."

Mr. Johnson, who spoke at the memorial, noted WorkSafeBC has a dedicated team of inspection officers, recently bolstered, monitoring issues around asbestos linked to demolition and small commercial renovation.

"That's where we're seeing the exposures today," he said. "If we can prevent those exposures today, theoretically this disease can be eradicated in future."

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He said he did not have a dollar figure on compensation that WorkSafeBC is paying for those now suffering from asbestos-related disease.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Don Davis's last name.

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