GE workers paying price for decades of exposure to toxic chemicals: Report

The following post originally appeared in The Star, May 18, 2017 and can be viewed here.

Working conditions at General Electric’s Peterborough factory between 1945 and 2000 played a significant role in an “epidemic” of work-related illnesses among employees and retirees, according to a comprehensive study of chemical exposures at the plant.

The 173-page report, to be released Thursday, confirms what the community has been saying for years and will be used to support occupational disease claims previously denied by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, say the workers and Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, which sponsored the report.

“For many years, workers and their family members were forced to provide proof as to their working conditions, only to be told this is anecdotal,” said Sue James, whose father Gord worked at the plant for 30 years and died of lung and spinal cancer, diseases his family believes were caused by his exposure to workplace chemicals.

“This report is a true depiction of the working conditions of the GE plant from its very beginnings until approximately 2000, when safety measures were finally being mandated,” said James, who was also employed by the company for 30 years and is among 11 retirees who worked as advisers on the report.

“It honours and recognizes the struggles and grief of a working community and gives validation to an historic past,” she added.

Plant workers, who built everything from household appliances to diesel locomotive engines and fuel cells for nuclear reactors, were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals, including at least 40 known or suspected to cause cancer, at levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe, the report says.

Once Peterborough’s largest employer, General Electric is now a much smaller operation which workers say is spotless today. However, for many years that was not true, the report says.

In the past, workers routinely handled toxic substances with their bare hands and were offered little in the way of protective gear. Since they were paid by the piece, instead of by the hour until the late 1980s, there was an incentive to cut corners, the report says.

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