When general contractor Don Garrett was invited to bid on plumbing work in Agassiz’s Kent Prison in 2008, he had no idea that such routine work would expose him to asbestos and touch off a nine-year battle that would cast him on the national stage as a whistleblower, make it impossible to obtain bonding, and cost him future contracts. He says the exposure to asbestos has compromised his health, and the government has made his life a “nightmare”.
Garrett, a contractor with three decades of experience, and his team reported for work on the 30-year-old maximum security Corrections facility on May 29, 2009. The job, replacing sinks and toilets, commissioned in 2008 by Public Works Canada (http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/comm/index-eng.html), had already been delayed. It was expected to take until June 4, but Garrett says that the prison and Public Works imposed many delays that he only later discovered were related to asbestos.
During the first weeks after he and his crew had gained access to the prison worksite in late May of 2009, Garrett took the lead. Without using any kind of breathing mask or other protection, he removed gaskets by grinding and using a wire brush on them. The process created a lot of dust that swirled around him as he worked. He and his crew, all working without masks or other protective equipment, took in what he would later describe as “lungs full” of the toxic material.
“The tender documents made no mention of asbestos in the plumbing,” Garrett told Postmedia. “Consequently, my crew and I unknowingly exposed ourselves and others to high concentrations of asbestos while removing and rebuilding plumbing valves that contained asbestos.”
Asbestos, widely used in Canadian construction in decades past, is now known to be a carcinogen. Strict building and construction safety protocols and precautions are required when work is done on a site where asbestos exposure is possible. Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the pleural tissue around the lungs, often occurring many years after exposure.
What Garrett didn’t know in May 2009 as he drilled into the structure of Kent Prison was that a report five years earlier had warned about the prevalence of asbestos in the building materials of the institution — and that prison guards had also raised the alarm.
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