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April 26, 2019

Asbestos-related workplace deaths in Saskatchewan not declining as expected



As reported in the Regina Leader-Post, Howard Willems was exposed to asbestos during the years he spent working for the federal government as a food inspector, a job his stepson says took him into countless potentially unsafe workplaces across Saskatchewan.

In 2010, Willems was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by inhaling the silicate mineral. Two years later, he was dead — one of about 75 Saskatchewan workers to perish from asbestos exposure over the last decade.

After Willems’ death, his stepson Jesse Todd took the reins of his organization, the Saskatchewan Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. He says more needs to be done to ensure people are aware of asbestos and the risks it poses.

“It’s frustrating to see. People don’t know, and in some cases they just don’t care. But to see what this does to people, to see how it affects not only the individual but the family as well, it’s heartbreaking,” Todd said.

Asbestos has been recognized as a carcinogen for decades and was formally banned in Canada last year, but because of its abundance and the long latency period between exposure and contracting a disease, it continues to kill Saskatchewan workers.

Last month, the Saskatchewan Workers Compensation Board reported that 13 of the 48 workplace fatality claims it accepted last year were caused by the material. Asbestos remains the leading cause of on-the-job deaths in the province.

That does not match the provincial government’s original expectation. Speaking to a legislative committee last week, Ray Anthony, the executive director of the province’s occupational health and safety division, said the number is “remaining fairly constant.”

Anthony told the committee that while the National Building Code requires hazardous materials be removed before they endanger anyone, “It just doesn’t seem to be enforced a great deal or recognized a great deal because no one seems to be looking.”

In a followup interview, Anthony said his predecessors likely didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem, and that exposures are likely continuing due to old buildings laced with asbestos undergoing demolition and renovations.

Keep reading in the Regina Leader-Post


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