Ill, ex-shipyard workers taking on Newfoundland gov’t over asbestos

A group of ailing, former shipyard workers in Marystown, Newfoundland and Labrador is taking on the provincial government over asbestos.

The town has a proud history of fishing and shipbuilding, but nearly 60 people there have already died or are dying from asbestos-related cancer.

While some have been compensated – many have not, and they’re afraid they’ll die before they see any money.

For almost five decades, the Newfoundland government owned the shipyard. It was the town’s main employer. But in exchange for a decent paycheque, tradesmen have paid a horrible price.

“It caused my cancer of my throat. I’m pretty well sure of it,” says Joe Hannam, who spent 12 years at the yard cutting asbestos. His claim for compensation has been rejected by Newfoundland’s Workplace Compensation Commission.

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“They say the reason they didn’t pay me compensation is that I didn’t work at Marystown Shipyard long enough to get cancer from asbestos or whatever,” he told Global National correspondent Ross Lord.

Hannam recalls he and his colleagues didn’t think much of the shipyard’s conditions back then. “We had (seen the asbestos) on the table saw, and the dust would be – we didn’t know then that asbestos was so bad, eh? So, we’d take it and say it was foggy throughout the building. We’d just laugh and say, ‘It’s some foggy today, eh?'”

But it’s no longer a joke to Hannam and other former shipyard workers. “I’m angry with the union, I’m angry with the yard, and with workers’ comp.”

It’s not just Hannam’s health that is failing either. “I lost my house, I lost my truck, I had to draw my RRSPs and everything, because I had nothing to live on then.”

Most of the 58 other claims have also been shot down – despite the best efforts of two volunteers: Bernadine Bennett and Bertha Smith, of the Marystown Shipyard Family Alliance.

Both women blame the government-owned shipyard for the deaths of loved ones who worked there.

Bennett has spent six years researching the cancer outbreak. She calls the shipyard “a crime scene.”

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“My father was diagnosed with lung disease when he was 63 years old,” says Bennett.

Smith’s husband died from brain cancer. “He went to his grave in 1997, believing that what he had, came from his work at the shipyard.”

“We’re looking for justice, and that comes in the way of recognition of what these men were exposed to, (and) recognition of their diseases,” Bennett adds.

“It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere you turn. Someone who worked at that yard and has been affected by the chemical exposure at that yard.”

“This is wrong, this should never have happened.”

There is some hope, however. The group’s perseverance has forced authorities to suggest they may reconsider cancer claims they’ve previously rejected.

“If there’s pervasive evidence available, we want to see it and we’ll look at it. And we’ll reopen cases should that be available,” says Leslie Galway of the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We look for new information. We look for the availability of new data,” says provincial Occupational Health and Safety Minister Paul Davis.

However, Dr. Noel Kerin, an occupational disease specialist in Toronto, says they’re not looking hard enough. He says previous studies ignore a key fact – exposure to cancer-causing chemicals was much higher at Marystown than at other shipyards in the world, because Newfoundland’s cold climate kept workers cooped up in confined spaces for long periods of time.

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Kerin has decided to help these workers for free and has strong words regarding the shipyard’s condition. “I was horrified to hear of some of the actual denials of compensation that had occurred in that shipyard. So I felt that if somebody else was not going to do it, I would at least start the process.”

“When a worker comes forward and asks a compensation system to look at a disease, and gets no consideration for the disease, or a very fleeting attempt to look at it – yes, it is justice denied. Because these people were working in horrendous, third-world conditions.”

Kerin adds, “That basically wrecked a whole generation of innocent people. So, we need to address that. And once that’s done, we’ll have done a service to these workers. And, we’ll have set a benchmark going forward for other shipyards in Canada.”

The claims span from the late 1960s to the 1980s, when the Newfoundland government owned the shipyard. The current, private owner has since removed the asbestos and other carcinogens.

With files from Global National’s Ross Lord