Asbestos causing rise in Canadian workplace deaths

December 12th, 2006

A Canadian study has found that 70% of a recent rise in workplace deaths can be blamed on asbestos-related illnesses. The study, “Five Deaths a Day: Workplace Fatalities in Canada, 1993–2005,” says that workplace deaths rose from 958 in 2004 to 1,097 in 2005. More than 30% of these deaths were related to asbestos exposure.

The 340 asbestos-related deaths last year were a sharp rise from the fewer than 60 that occurred a decade earlier. The Centre for the Study of Living Standards, the non-profit organization that conducted the study, blamed the rise on the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, especially mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a severe cancer of the lungs, heart or abdomen that can only be caused by asbestos exposure. Patients who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis have an average life-expectancy of only one to five years. But it can take as long as 20 to 50 years before a person who has been exposed to asbestos begins to show any mesothelioma symptoms. Because of this, many of those who worked with or around asbestos before the safety regulations of the 1960s and 1970s are only now receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis.

According to the International Labour Organization, about 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos diseases. In addition to workers in Canada’s mining industry, transportation workers, auto mechanics and building workers have been affected by asbestos-related illnesses. Because of its heat-resistant properties, asbestos was commonly used in machine and auto parts, building materials and other commercial products until the 1970s, when its use was restricted because of health risks. Because of this, more than half of all work-related deaths from 1996 to 2004 were among workers in Canada’s trades or transport industry.

Despite the high number of deaths from mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and other asbestos diseases, the study predicted that deaths from these illnesses would not peak until 2010 to 2020. By that point, most of the workers who were exposed to asbestos before the safety regulations will begin to exceed the expected latency period for asbestos-related diseases.

Because so many workplace deaths occur among workers in Canada’s mining industry, the report called for a national ban on asbestos mining. Although asbestos use is severely restricted in Canada, the country continues to export the deadly mineral to developing countries, where regulations are less strict.

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