By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
B.C. to require asbestos removal companies to be licensed by the governmentCanadian Contractor Renovation Contractor
May 8, 2023 – Next year, the B.C. government is set to become the first in Canada to require that companies that work in asbestos removal be licensed by the government, part of a bid to eliminate bad actors and keep workers safe.
The dangers of asbestos have been known for decades, but it remains the number one killer of workers in British Columbia.
Since 2002, British Columbia has recorded nearly 1,200 work-related deaths linked to asbestos. In 2022, it was responsible for 61 of the 181 work-related deaths, the result of exposures that happened decades before.
For many people, asbestos is a thing of the past – a tragic but finished chapter in workplace safety.
Advocates say workers in British Columbia are still regularly exposed to asbestos on the job, meaning its toxic legacy could extend another generation.
Dan Jajic, the business manager and secretary-treasurer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in B.C., says a mix of uninformed and unscrupulous construction contractors are routinely putting workers in close contact with asbestos, sometimes without them knowing it.
WorkSafeBC is still deciding what companies will need to do to be licensed, and Lee Loftus, the former head of the BC Building Trades, cautions those details will be crucial. But he’s cautiously hopeful the province can finally turn a page on asbestos’s toxic legacy.
Last year WorkSafeBC inspected 1,238 worksites involving older residential buildings to make sure asbestos rules were being followed. They ended up handing out 1,318 orders – an average of more than one per worksite – and ordered 242 firms to stop work together because of issues around asbestos removal and handling.
Phil Venoit, now the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 230, said there was no avoiding asbestos. It was everywhere – in the lining of electrical wires, in ships and in homes.
The result was that workers from a gamut of professions were exposed. They were carpenters and millwrights; pipefitters and longshore workers; firefighters and truck drivers. But some of the most affected workers were insulators, who used asbestos regularly.
The use of asbestos fell sharply after scientists linked it to numerous forms of cancer and governments introduced regulations or bans.
But Christopher MacLeod, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia, says people are still encountering asbestos on the job today, especially construction workers.
“This is something that to a certain degree, we thought would go away, because the major production of asbestos and use of asbestos in industrial products and construction largely concluded in the ’70s and the ’80s,” said MacLeod, who has extensively studied the toll of asbestos in B.C. “But because of the persistence of the material in buildings and the latency in terms of exposure and disease, we’re still seeing many, many people die of asbestos-related disease, and we expect that to continue for some time.”
MacLeod said one of the reasons for that is improper handling and disposal of asbestos, which can expose any number of workers in a building to dangerous particles.
“Over the next 20 years, even with better treatment for lung cancer and mesothelioma, hundreds of workers will contract asbestos-related disease,” MacLeod said. “That’s going to happen, because the exposure has already happened for them.”
Last year, the B.C. government promised to impose new requirements on firms that specialize in asbestos abatement. Starting on Jan. 1, B.C. will become the first province to require such firms to be licensed, meaning they’ll have to meet educational requirements on safety.
WorkSafeBC is still determining exactly what those look like, something Munro believes will be critical to whether the new rules succeeded in keeping workers safe.