Asbestos has been banned in Canada since late 2018, but it continues to pose a very real problem in Saskatchewan where it still accounts for nearly 30 per cent of all work-related fatalities in the province.
A report released recently by WorkSafe Saskatchewan found the province’s total workplace injury rate dipped 10 per cent in 2020, however it also revealed that asbestos continues to be a hidden danger for construction workers, contractors and homeowners undertaking renovations or demolition work.
Asbestos exposure remains the leading cause of work-related deaths in the province, the report concluded.
WorkSafe Saskatchewan looked at data from 2010 to 2018 and found asbestos-exposure work-related deaths accounted for just less than a third of all fatalities during that timeline.
“Unfortunately, asbestos exposure continues to claim lives, but it is preventable,” says Annette Goski, director of prevention at the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board. “We are appealing to homeowners, contractors and workers, anyone in the construction field to be aware that asbestos is still a very present and silent killer in our province’s homes and workplaces.
“We see the impacts this hidden, yet very serious, health threat has on families who lose loved ones prematurely to diseases related to asbestos exposure.”
Canada has made it illegal to import, manufacture, sell, trade or use products made with the toxic material. The product was used in construction from the 1950s to 1990, mostly in cement pipes, schools and hospitals, arenas, government offices and homes because of its strong fibres and resistance to fire.
However, when asbestos is disturbed during renovations, the fibres are released into the air. The National Building Code now prohibits its use in new building projects.
Workers and people in homes that have asbestos often don’t realize there is a problem as the fibres are so tiny. However, once inhaled asbestos fibres can cause life-threatening lung diseases decades down the road such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that develops in the linings of certain areas of the body, including the lungs, heart and abdomen.
Dying from mesothelioma is, by all accounts, a terrible death as the person essentially slowly chokes to death.
“It’s something that hasn’t really decreased because it’s such a long-term disease to manifest,” says Goski. “We can’t do anything about the past but we’re trying to change the future.”
Two years ago, WorkSafe Saskatchewan launched an extensive campaign called “Asbestos kills. It’s best to test” aimed at providing much-needed education to contractors, workers and the public about the dangers of asbestos.
“The campaign is to remind individuals that if they suspect they have asbestos to get it tested or have a professional abatement company test and remove it,” explains Goski. “It’s really about giving safety tips to homeowners and contractors, and to keep in mind as they work on renovations during the fall and winter season about the dangers of asbestos, and when you should test for asbestos.”
On worksafesask.ca there is a link to information on asbestos and the campaign. A page features videos, a free e-course, links to companies that do asbestos testing and abatement, and an explanation of how to stay safe during home renovations. Frequently-asked questions about buildings, testing, handling and abatement are also on the site.
Meanwhile, there’s an asbestos abatement guide for download, and PDFs on safe work procedures for conducting asbestos surveys and for bulk asbestos sampling, and personal stories on the dangers of asbestos.
“We wanted a call to action for the campaign,” says Goski. “The first year, we ran just an awareness campaign to start making people aware that this is a problem because people think asbestos exposure is a thing of the past, but it continues to happen today, and asbestos can still be found in homes and commercial buildings built before 1990.
“The campaign focuses on where asbestos could be hiding in your home and then we point people to the website to get information on how to hire an asbestos abatement professional.”
It’s critical to test all home materials suspected of containing asbestos before starting any construction project or renovation, says Goski. Education is therefore a big component of the campaign for construction professionals.
Testing before renovations or building projects will identify any asbestos in common household areas and materials that contain it, such as vinyl floor tiles, plaster, popcorn ceilings and loose-filled vermiculite insulation.
“Asbestos exposure is preventable and testing for asbestos before those commercial projects or home renovations begin is critical,” notes Goski.
With more people in the province working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, WorkSafe Saskatchewan says homeowners are at a greater risk of exposure to toxic construction materials, such as asbestos, during renovations or do-it-yourself projects.
The campaign will continue once WorkSafe Saskatchewan has assessed the situation.
“What we do hear from our focus groups is more resources are needed, so we continue to revise the campaign,” says Goski. “But we haven’t gotten that far yet.”