The Ministry of Labor will dedicate more than $ 6 million in funding to better track and investigate cancers in the workplace, after an expert report found the province lacks the capacity to identify and prevent toxic exposures at work.
The funding, which will go to the Occupational Cancer Research Center (OCRC), will also be used to research the causes of cancer in the workplace and support those dealing with occupational diseases. Hundreds of thousands of Ontario workers are currently exposed to “known or suspected” carcinogens on the job, but only a fraction receive any compensation, existing studies show.
Building the province’s ability to identify workplace exposures was a crucial recommendation from an expert report to the government led by OCRC Director Dr. Paul Demers. Demers said the new funding will help “update and expand” the organization’s occupational disease surveillance system, the first effort of its kind to identify high-risk groups.
“An important goal of this funding is to give us the ability to get the results to people and organizations affected by toxic exposures,” he said.
Information gaps make it difficult for sick workers and bereaved families to endorse claims for compensation at the Board of Insurance and Workplace Safety. A Star investigation previously found workers at GE Peterborough they were subjected to decades of exposure to cancer-causing substances, but often struggled to receive compensation for a variety of, sometimes terminal illnesses.
“As I speak to affected workers and their families, my heart certainly goes out to them,” Labor Minister Mount McNaughton said in an interview.
“The bottom line is this: If workers get sick from exposure on the job, they deserve to be confident that they will be protected and compensated accordingly.”
Demers said the new research will help support a “wide range of workers,” noting that some groups, such as migrant workers, generally “are not overlooked in our tracking systems.”
“They, in particular, require the kind of targeted research that this new funding will enhance our ability to provide.”
Last month, the newly formed Occupational Disease Reform Alliance asked the Ministry of Labor to review its approach to workplace cancers, including expanding the list of cancers deemed “presumed” work-related, making it easier for workers to get compensation.
That recommendation was also part of the Demers report, but the government has yet to act.
Demers’ study published last year found that the WSIB cancer claim acceptance rate is 2.9 occupational cancer cases per 100,000 workers, a significantly lower rate than in other countries. In Germany, for example, the acceptance rate for cancer claims in the workplace is 15.1 per 100,000 workers.
Earlier this month, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board also announced that it will establish an Occupational Illness Scientific Advisory Board to help shape policy and compensation decisions for those with work-related exposures.
McNaughton said new investments in scientific research “would lead to healthier workplaces and healthier people.”
“This investment is about ensuring that (the WSIB) has the scientific data and evidence necessary to make the right decisions.”