Each year, WorkSafeBC has the grim task of compiling its annual statistics book. It details trends among workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.
This year, they shone a spotlight on a troubling trend that’s on the rise — death from asbestos exposure.
These are deaths that aren’t likely to ease in the near future, the stats book underlines. The reason? Exposure to the toxic asbestos that happens early in life, often with young construction workers, can take decades to build into a disease. But with stricter guidelines in place, WorkSafeBC is hopeful that eventually those numbers will lessen.
In the meantime, exposure is killing a disproportionate number of workers, accounting for almost half of all work related deaths last year.
The 150-page report lists all deaths, broken down into age categories and industries, male and female workers, and other variables.
From 2005 to 2014, they report 581 deaths in B.C. were related to asbestos exposure, with the majority of those workers dying before the age of 65.
And that trend is likely to continue increasing as workers exposed to its deadly fibres get older, it states.
Last year, one British Columbian died on an average of every five days from work-related exposure to asbestos. The compound of fibres is found in all sorts of building materials in homes that pre-date the mid-’80s.
There are stringent rules and guidelines set out for removal of asbestos materials, but those have been easily ignored by those willing to take the risk — and those unaware of the risks.
The agency held a blitz in 2014, checking in on 210 sites with an inspection. They found that 43 per cent of hazardous material surveys were inadequate, often failing to detect asbestos that further tests proved was present.
But WorkSafeBC has stepped up its efforts to educate the public about hazardous materials testing and removal. Still, because it can take decades for exposure to result in illness and death, it’s likely the trend will remain on the upswing “well into the foreseeable future,” the report states.
“Because of its long latency period, the rising disease rate associates with asbestos is often attributed to older and retired workers suffering from exposures that occurred decades earlier,” the report reads.
And that risk hasn’t gone away.
Workers involved in renovating or demolishing older homes and buildings are at the greatest risk, as well as those improperly handling removing and disposing of asbestos-containing materials.
“As long as B.C. workplaces fail to manage the exposure risks, asbestos will continue to kill or result in chronic and debilitating diseases such as asbestosis,” WorkSafeBC said.
Asbestos has a long history in construction, and was used for its heat resistant and insulating properties. But in the 1970s, health officials started to make the connection between illnesses and asbestos handling history. Asbestosis is irreversible.
In addition to worker safety, homeowners trying to complete renovations on their own are also putting themselves and their families at risk.
Five cities in the Lower Mainland require demolition permit applicants to first provide hazardous material survey results, including Vancouver, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Saanich and Nanaimo. Each municipality’s process is slightly different, but result in a Notice of Project being registered with WorkSafeBC for major renovations or demolitions.
Between Aug. 1, 2013 and Aug. 31, 2015, there were 242 such notices in the Chilliwack area filed with WorkSafeBC.
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said in September that city staff is looking into the idea, and are working on bringing a report to an upcoming council meeting. There was no item on the matter listed on Tuesday’s agenda.
More information can be found at WorkSafeBC’s asbestos information site hiddenkiller.ca.