Miner’s lung cancer from smoking, not career in mines, board says

Form of cancer more consistent with miner's pack-a-day habit for 60 years

The widow of an Ontario miner who died from lung cancer is not entitled to compensation because his cancer was more likely the result of smoking rather than his working conditions, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Board has ruled.

The miner worked for 36 years in underground nickel mines, from 1948 to 1984. In 1997, when he was 73, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his left lung. Having no family history of cancer, he filed a claim for compensation, saying the cancer was a result of the conditions in which he worked during his career in the mines.

Other employees said the mines were dirty with little ventilation. The worker had many duties in the mines over the years, one of which was working with slushers — machines which drilled with water that had brakes partially made from asbestos.

The employer said the asbestos used in the brakes was the least toxic kind and was not considered a danger to workers. It referred to an analysis of brake dust that showed it contained less than one per cent of asbestos and particles in the air were well below regulated levels and no worse than normal air. For this reason, the worker had never been placed on its asbestos risk registry.

The board exposure studies showed the levels of dust, asbestos fibres and diesel fumes in the mines were not excessive and underground nickel miners were unlikely to face anything more than “incidental” exposure.

The board also heard medical evidence indicating the worker was a long-term smoker. He smoked about one pack a day for about 60 years. The medical reports specified his cancer was in the upper lobe of his lung with no thickening of membranes.

The employer’s medical experts said cancer caused by asbestos exposure usually appears in the lower lobes of the lungs and causes membrane thickening, while smoking-related cancer develops in the upper lobes without thickening, similar to the worker’s cancer.

The worker’s claim for compensation was denied in 2002 and he later died. His widow appealed the decision, saying the asbestos, dust and diesel he was exposed to over many years in the mines made it a possibility the workplace contributed to his cancer.

The board found there was no evidence to support the argument the worker’s cancer was work-related, particularly considering his extensive smoking history. The nature of the cancer made it more likely it was caused by more than 50 years of regular smoking.

“Based on the worker’s general nickel mining exposure, it is no more than a bare possibility that general underground nickel mining exposures had a role in the worker’s cancer,” the tribunal said. “Further, the medical evidence suggests (a development of) this worker’s cancer that is more consistent with smoking than with asbestos exposure.” The claim for compensation was dismissed. See Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 499/07, 2007 CarswellOnt 9150 (Ont. W.S.I.A.T.).

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