After a decades-long battle for compensation, the voices of ailing General Electric workers in Canada are finally being heard. Early indications are that around two-thirds of the previously denied occupational cancer and other work-related disease claims made by former employees at the GE plant in Peterborough, Ontario – one of Canada’s oldest industrial operations – are being overturned.
The reversals are part of an ongoing review by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which committed to re-open 250 rejected claims for a range of devastating illnesses, following a Toronto Star investigation into hazardous working conditions at the Peterborough factory. Of the 47 files reviewed to date, the WSIB has now approved 30.
Earlier this year, health researchers Bob and Dale DeMatteo published a comprehensive report with the union Unifor which found that GE Peterborough workers were exposed to more than 3,000 toxic chemicals in their workplace between 1945 and 2000, at levels hundreds of times higher than what is now considered safe.
WSIB spokesperson Christine Arnott said the board’s review is considering “new information or evidence that was not available when an original claim decision was made,” including the DeMatteo report. “We want to make sure our decisions reflect the best available scientific evidence and current knowledge of historical exposures,” she said.
A significant part of the evidence that originally weighed against the 660 claims made by GE Peterborough workers between 2004 and 2016 was a health study conducted by General Electric in 2003. That study, which was later submitted to the WSIB, claimed there were no excess cancer rates at the GE factory when controlling for factors like age and smoking. Around half of workers’ claims were subsequently denied, abandoned or withdrawn.
Earlier this year, GE workers’ union Unifor commissioned its own expert review of the GE study, which found it was of “mediocre quality” and “too poorly conducted to instill any faith in its results.” It also pointed to flaws in the methodology that may have misrepresented the exposure risks workers faced on the job.