The union for TTC employees said a train operator was taken off the job after refusing management requests to remove his protective face mask, following the release of a report on air quality in the Toronto transit system.
Kevin Morton, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 secretary-treasurer, told The Morning Show on AM640 that he had been contacted Tuesday night by an operator who had been spotted on camera at Coxwell Station wearing a face mask — and was asked by a supervisor to remove it.
“He was taken off a subway crew because he was wearing a mask,” Morton said, adding the worker had missed time as a result of sinus issues in the past. “And he was told that if he did it again today … that they would consider that as a work refusal.”
Morton told Global News the employee then returned to work Wednesday wearing the mask despite TTC policy.
TTC spokesman Brad Ross said the Ministry of Labour was called in around 11 a.m. Wednesday after what he described as a “work refusal.”
“Masks are unnecessary and, therefore, not permitted. If a worker refuses work, the Ministry of Labour is called and that has happened,” he told AM640 in an emailed statement.
LISTEN: Kevin Morton joins the Morning Show on AM640
The union, which represents more than 10,000 transit employees, is raising the alarm following the release of a Health Canada-led study that pegged air quality on subway platforms at 10 times worse than outside.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, is based on data collected from the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver rapid transit systems during peak hours in the summer of 2010 and winter 2011.
It found that levels of fine particulate matter in the air on subway platforms in Toronto were three times higher compared to those observed in Montreal and five times higher than within Vancouver’s system.
Greg Evans, a University of Toronto chemical engineering professor and one of the study’s co-authors, said the particle samples were “very metal rich” – similar in composition to steel – and also featured components found in brakes.
WATCH: High levels of pollution found on TTC subway system: study
The study did not measure the health effects of exposure to the subway air. However, according to the World Health Organization, exposure to fine particulate matter can have health impacts “even at very low concentrations.”
Morton said that while the study measured exposure through a 70-minute transit trip, TTC workers can be breathing in subway system air for eight to 12 hours a day.
Todd, a TTC employee for more than 20 years who AM640 and Global News have agreed not to fully identify, said working underground has taken a toll on his health.
“I’m very worried. Every time I blow my nose, I’m always getting black stuff, soot in my nose, everything,” he said.
“It’s horrible. What do I say to my family when something goes wrong?”
Keith Van Ryswyk, the study’s lead author, told Global News Tuesday that TTC riders don’t need to be overly concerned with the results, though research suggests that there are benefits to keeping fine particle levels as low as possible.
On Tuesday, the TTC said updates have been made to improve air quality since the research was conducted, including the refurbishment of air-filtration systems on board some trains and the purchase of a tunnel vacuum car that can suck up particles within the air.
“We will continue to work with Health Canada to monitor the steps we are already taking to improve air quality including the impact our mitigation measures have had,” TTC spokesman Stuart Green said. “That work begins this summer.”
The union released a statement Wednesday demanding a meeting with TTC management on the results of the study, which Ross told AM640 can take place “just as soon as a date can be arranged.”
With files from Erica Vella, Global News, and Don Mitchell, AM640.