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Advisory board will help shape occupational disease policy in Ontario

WSIB seeking expressions of interest from qualified applicants until Dec. 7
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Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) has announced it’s establishing a new advisory table, which will help shape provincial policy related to compensating workers who are impacted by occupational disease.

The Scientific Advisory Table for Occupational Disease, announced on Nov. 2, will support the WSIB in gathering scientific evidence to help inform new and existing policies around occupational disease.

“By providing scientific advice, an advisory table will help the WSIB fulfill its legislative obligations to workers, and to survivors of deceased workers, who experience an occupational disease due to the nature of their employment,” according to the WSIB.

Comprised of eight members, the table will include a representative each from Cancer Care Ontario, Public Health Ontario, and the WSIB, as well as five appointees who have scientific expertise in areas related to occupational disease.

In a call for expressions of interest, the WSIB said it would accept submissions from applicants until Dec. 7.

Those applying must meet certain criteria, including having a professional designation or doctoral degree from a recognized institution in occupational epidemiology, toxicology, occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, or some other appropriate professional designation.

Janice Martell, a Sudbury-based worker advocate, welcomed the announcement.

She's been calling for an independent review of WSIB policies since starting the McIntyre Powder Project in 2014.

Her work catalogues the use of finely ground aluminum called McIntyre Powder, which was administered to miners as a mandatory preventive measure against the lung disease silicosis.

Its use was later debunked as an effective medical treatment, but many miners later developed a range of illnesses, including her father, Jim Hobbs, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and later died of the illness.

Martell's work was integral in the decision last year to overturn a longstanding WSIB policy to automatically reject worker claims that were submitted based on a link between aluminum and neurological disease.

“The WSIB Freedom of Information documents that I obtained demonstrated that they did not review the evidence supporting their occupational disease policies for years, and in some cases decades, so the return to an independent, objective advisory panel is long overdue,” Martell said in a statement.

“However, the proposed scientific advisory committee will only succeed in addressing our concerns if they consider all of the evidence, including evidence gathered by the workers and widows of the occupational disease clusters.

“Had the scientific advisory committee existed when dad made his Parkinson’s claim, his claim would still have been denied, because the scientific research had not been done to discover the link to McIntyre Powder. The only reason that research happened is because of the evidence gathered by the McIntyre Powder Project and OHCOW, with the support of the Steelworkers.

"Without the evidence of the occupational disease clusters and ongoing research into the long-term health impacts of occupational exposures, nothing will change."

The introduction of the new advisory table is part of the WSIB’s Occupational Disease Strategy, which the WSIB said was a recommendation in two recent reports: “Using scientific evidence and principles to help determine the work-relatedness of cancer,” which was prepared by Dr. Paul Demers and released in July 2020, and "Value for Money Audit Report: Occupational Disease and Survivor Benefit Program," prepared by KPMG and released in 2019.

But the WSIB’s announcement also comes just days after the launch of the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA), a collection of workers and worker advocates from across the province who are pushing for changes to the WSIB.

Introduced on Oct. 29, ODRA wants the WSIB to give more consideration to workers impacted by occupational disease and streamline the claims submission process, which can take years to navigate.

Among their demands, the alliance wants claims granted for occupational diseases when they exceed the level circulating in a community.

They also want the WSIB to use available evidence of occupational disease in a workplace, including that gathered by workers, as the standard for evaluating claims.

The list of compensable diseases should be expanded, according to the ODRA, and the claims should be recognized when they result from multiple exposures, carcinogens and irritants.

In its call to action, the ODRA requested a response from Labour Minister Monte McNaughton; however, the Ministry of Labour referred comment back to the WSIB.

The ODRA deemed this an attempt to “duck responsibility,” and called on McNaughton and Premier Doug Ford to enact legislation that would ensure workers receive fair compensation for claims related to occupational disease.

"Currently, they (the Ministry of Labour) have a bill before the Legislature to give billions of dollars in rebates to employers. This is disgraceful, while only 170 of an estimated 3,000 annual occupational cancers get compensated by WSIB,” said Sue James, ODRA's chair, in a Nov. 2 news release.

“We want to be very clear: the victims and families in occupational disease clusters across Ontario expect positive action from this government. No money should be going back to employers while these Ontarians are denied compensation. He and his government MPPs will be hearing actively from us in the coming weeks.”