Asbestos: Canada’s shame (Editor’s Notes)

Quebec’s decision to give $58-million loan guarantee to reopen mine not the example Canada should be setting
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/17/2012

They’re applauding in a small town in Quebec, and they’re getting sick and dying in India. The provincial government’s decision to provide a $58 million loan guarantee to Montreal-based Balcorp to reopen the Jeffrey asbestos Mine in Asbestos, Que., is not the health and safety example we should be setting.

How’s this for a stark contrast? Sitting next to the daily newspapers on my desk with headlines of Quebec’s investment in asbestos is marketing material for Canada’s Safest Employers awards. The annual awards, handed out in September by Canadian Occupational Safety (COS) magazine (www.cos-mag.com), recognize employers with exceptional health and safety records and programs.

A safe workplace is a right, not a privilege. While we haven’t perfected the art of prevention, and everyone agrees one death or injury is too many, everybody — including employers, employees and government — is trying to ensure workers make it home safe.

Numerous Canadian jurisdictions have even put bullying and psychological harassment on the workplace violence agenda (including Quebec, which led the charge). It’s the right thing to do for workers, and it’s a boon for business — injured workers, whether it’s a physical or mental ailment, are bad for the bottom line.

It’s hard to reconcile all this progressive, enlightened thinking with a decision to prop up a failing asbestos industry that is exposing vulnerable workers in developing countries to cancer.

Who can forget that CBC video from a few years ago that showed workers in India handling asbestos without protection, flinging it around while wearing only bandanas to cover their mouths and noses?

It’s hard to find anybody, outside of the residents of the job-starved town, in favour of restarting the mine. Even the province’s own public health doctors see the folly of the scheme — “(Premier Jean Charest) is relaunching the exploitation of an extremely dangerous material that will cause the suffering and death of thousands of people in poor countries, at only marginal benefit to a desperate community,” Yv Bonnier Viger, head of Quebec’s association of public health specialists, told the Globe and Mail.

About 55 countries have banned asbestos. We know the health effects of exposure all too well — we will be dealing with the fallout for decades to come. Asbestos remains popular in some quarters because of its strength and resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage. Wouldn’t we be far better off to take that $58 million and put it into researching, developing and producing a non-lethal substitute?

Then we could open a factory in Asbestos, Que., that safely employs local workers and doesn’t condemn unwitting victims on the other side of the globe to an early death.

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