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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2004

Workplace Safety Bought with a Price

Victor Catano
Both of my grandfathers immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1890s when they were young boys of nine and 10 years old. They were sent by their families in Italy and Eastern Europe to find a better life in the U.S. They lived with relatives who worked in the anthracite coal mines. The youngsters worked in the coal breakers to earn money to help their families. "Breaker boys" sat astride chutes that carried coal down from a machine that dry cleaned, crushed and sorted the coal. The boys had the task of picking out rock, slate and other refuse from the passing stream of coal. It was very common for the breaker boys to be swept down the chutes and lose their lives.1 If the boys survived until they were about 14 or so, they were taken on underground to start their careers as miners, where they worked until they retired or died. Very few retired.

I never knew my grandfathers as both died before I was born from what we now call black lung disease, caused by years of breathing air saturated with coal dust. Dying on the job or from a work-related illness or accident was accepted as an economic necessity for the workers to keep their jobs and for the workplace to keep functioning.

The miners and their families wanted their sacrifices to lead to a better future for their children. They saw that future in education. The goal was a well-paying, "safe" job for their descendants. Many children and grandchildren of immigrant families went on to find jobs as teachers and professors and other professionals. We work in clean, comfortable, safe surroundings. We've come a long way from being breaker boys, but perhaps we should not be so sanguine about the impact or our work environment.

Many of us work in buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. Almost certainly many of these buildings contain asbestos as part of floor tiles, acoustic tiles, thermal systems, insulation and coatings for various surfaces and many other products. If the asbestos remains covered it may not pose a health hazard. The problem is that once asbestos particles or fibres break off and are inhaled they may lead to several diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Sooner or later, the asbestos always becomes friable (crumbling or breaking off).

You may recall that recently we reported in the Bulletin cases of mesothelioma at the University of Manitoba. Mesothelioma is primarily a cancer of the lining of the lung and the only known cause is exposure to asbestos. It can be contracted from very low exposures. The exposure need not be direct. People exposed to asbestos may carry home fibres in their clothes that become loose and are inhaled by family members. Asbestos is a silent killer in that the latency period for the onset of the disease is about 30 years, although it may be as short as 10. There is no known cure.

The best solution is an expensive one - remove the asbestos-laden materials. With many universities practicing "deferred maintenance," this is not their preferred option. At the same time, deferred maintenance increases the likelihood of university employees breathing a daily dose of asbestos. Removal of the asbestos must take place in a controlled manner. Recently the Toronto Star reported on the removal of asbestos from the overhanging roof of a downtown apartment building. Although the workers were wearing protective gear they left behind crumbled asbestos products in flower gardens and in the grass.

Ask yourself, has there been an unusual number of cancers among academic and non-academic staff on your campus? Are you concerned that your building contains asbestos products (a distinct possibility if your building was built before the mid-1970s)? If so, call your faculty association or your joint occupational health and safety committee, raise the issue with them and demand they take action on your behalf to ensure that you are working in a safe environment. In every province you have the right to stop working in an environment that poses a threat to your health and safety. Also, advise CAUT's occupational health and safety officer Laura Lozanski (

The asbestos incident at the University of Manitoba made us realize we had not paid enough attention to occupational health and safety issues. In November 2002 CAUT Council authorized the hiring of a first-ever occupational health and safety officer. As part of this initiative we recently held a two-day conference on health and safety issues faced by academic staff. On any campus academic staff are likely to come in contact with toxic chemicals or substances, to use defective equipment and to work in environments with poor air quality, noise and fluctuating temperatures.

CAUT will be issuing a series of fact sheets on the occupational health and safety issues confronting academic staff. These will be sent to faculty associations and will be available on the CAUT web site. The first issue in the series addresses occupational stress, perhaps the most pernicious threat to the occupational health and welfare of academic staff. Workplace stress occurs when there is a conflict between job demands that employees face and the amount of control they have over meeting those demands.

We like to think of academic jobs as ones where academic staff have a great deal of control. But factors such as concerns over job security (tenure or redundancy), promotion, adequate pay and conflicts with administration, co-workers and students all reduce that control and create stressful situations. Ever increasing class sizes, the shrinking number of academic staff and other resources and the neverending demands to do more with less breed stress on university campuses.

Recent studies involving academic staff in U.K and Australian universities, which have suffered the same types of financial and staffing constraints as Canadian schools, illustrate these concerns. In the U.K. the most significant source of stress was concern about job security. In Australia, more than half of the academic staff were at risk of psychological illness compared to about one-fifth of the general population. We don't have comparable data for Canada, but CAUT will soon undertake a national survey of academic staff to assess the incidence of stress on Canadian campuses.

Unlike the case with asbestos, there are interventions faculty associations can take to reduce stress for their members. These involve negotiating fairness of procedures related to tenure, promotion, redundancy and performance appraisals; reviewing the fairness and adequacy of pay and benefit systems; and reviewing the balance between teaching and research demands as well as the balance between work and family.

Taking action on occupational health and safety is not only a moral obligation for faculty associations, but also a legal one. In the aftermath of the Westray Mine disaster in Nova Scotia, the federal government passed Bill C-45, under which associations and trade unions, as well as employers, now have an extraordinary obligation of duty of care and can be held liable if they fail to fulfill their duty. Let's not accept dying on the job as an economic necessity. Let's do everything we can to create and sustain a healthy and safe workplace to allow us to see our grandchildren.

1 The 1968 Paramount Pictures production "The Molly Maguires" provides a realistic account of life in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania in the 19th century and the job of breaker boys.