Life / Health

'Just look at the body count': Majority of denied GE Peterborough workers' claims reversed

Voices of ailing General Electric Peterborough workers finally being heard after decades-long battle.

Once Peterborough's single largest employer, General Electric made everything from diesel locomotive engines to turbines and hydro generators.

File/ Torstar News Service

Once Peterborough's single largest employer, General Electric made everything from diesel locomotive engines to turbines and hydro generators.

After a decades-long battle for compensation, the voices of ailing General Electric Peterborough workers are finally being heard.

About 64 per cent of previously denied claims of occupational disease made by former employees at one of Canada’s oldest industrial operations have now been overturned, the Star has learned.

The reversals are part of an ongoing review by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which committed to re-open 250 rejected claims for a range of devastating illnesses, following a 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 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 its factory when controlling for factors like age and smoking. Around half of workers’ claims were subsequently denied, abandoned or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence.

For years, former GE workers disputed the study’s findings, including what they called inaccurate descriptions of the factory and working conditions.

Roger Fowler, now 71, was 46 years old when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and was forced to stop working at GE after 22 years on the job. The surgeries have resulted in multiple hernias, which he wraps with tape.

MELISSA RENWICK/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

Roger Fowler, now 71, was 46 years old when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and was forced to stop working at GE after 22 years on the job. The surgeries have resulted in multiple hernias, which he wraps with tape.

Roger Fowler, 71, a 22-year employee of GE Peterborough who developed cancer of the rectum in 1992, had his compensation claim denied in 2009 after he appealed all the way to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal. In several instances, the decision seen by the Star accepts evidence contained in the GE health study over Fowler’s testimony about his personal exposure to asbestos.

Fowler’s case has now been reviewed by the WSIB. While the board cannot overturn tribunal decisions, it has prepared a request for reconsideration on Fowler’s behalf.

Earlier this year, GE workers’ union Unifor commissioned renowned occupational health expert and chair of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Advisory Board on Toxic Substances Steven Markowitz to review the 2003 GE health study.

Markowitz was paid an honorarium to complete the review by Unifor, which describes the adjunct professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as having “impeccable credentials.” Markowitz is also the director of City University of New York’s Barry Commoner Center for Health and Environment, the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, and serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors of the U.S. National Toxicology Program.

In a copy of the review obtained by the Star, Markowitz described GE’s study as being of “mediocre quality” and “too poorly conducted to instill any faith in its results.” He also pointed to methodology flaws that may have misrepresented the exposure risks workers faced on the job.

In an emailed statement to the Star, GE Canada’s director of communications Jenna LaPlante said its Peterborough health study was produced as a “direct response” to workers and their union and was conducted with a “transparent and collaborative approach.”

“All parties, including local experts, were consulted and their input was invaluable to GE in ensuring that the study would deliver conclusions that were strictly based on available data and applicable scientifically accepted research principles,” LaPlante said, adding the company continues to co-operate with the WSIB as it re-examines compensation claims.

GE has long maintained that health and safety have always been its “number one priority” and that the company has “always followed the best health and safety practices based on the best knowledge available to us at the time.”

The Markowitz review describes numerous issues with the 2003 evidence submitted by GE — including the study’s methodology, its lack of independent peer evaluation, and its failure to disclose who funded and had influence over how the report was conducted.

According to the review, the methodology used in the GE study — which compared the death rate of exposed workers to that of the general population — was “not the preferred method in occupational epidemiology” as it excludes workers who got cancer but survived. Markowitz also noted the study did not explain why the methodology was chosen or explain some of its limitations.

He also found the controls used by GE to establish workers’ mortality from lung cancer may have falsely diminished the results, and therefore “compromised” the validity of the research.

Marilyn Harding worked at General Electric for almost 40 years and has survived bladder and breast cancer. A photo taken a few months after her daughter's birth shows her assembling lead heating cables, a task she completed beside an asbestos machine, which she says contaminated the entire work station.

MELISSA RENWICK/TORONTO STAR FILE

Marilyn Harding worked at General Electric for almost 40 years and has survived bladder and breast cancer. A photo taken a few months after her daughter's birth shows her assembling lead heating cables, a task she completed beside an asbestos machine, which she says contaminated the entire work station.

While he said the study made “considerable effort” to describe the factory’s setup and the potential risks of exposure to harmful chemicals across the plant, Markowitz wrote he was “not confident” those descriptions were “grounded in reality.”

That is because the GE study did not include any air sampling or environmental data, and claimed that ventilation and other health and safety practices would have safeguarded workers — despite the fact measures historically taken by factories often had “quite limited success in mitigating exposures.”

“The effectiveness of ventilation and widespread use of personal protective equipment during the relevant decades of exposure, 1940-1970, is not supported by data and at odds with my long experience in occupational medicine,” Markowitz found.

At the time of the Star’s investigation, a GE spokesperson said its health study was conducted with “a widely accepted method” by a “respected PhD in epidemiology.”

Sue James, who worked at the plant for 30 years, said the study’s findings have always clashed with workers’ experiences. Last year, she helped compile a list of all the former colleagues at the plant she knows who became sick or died of cancer. The list contained more than 200 names.

“We don’t need a genius to figure out all this,” said Marilyn Harding, who worked at the plant for most of her life alongside her husband Gerry. She survived breast and bladder cancer; Gerry died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.

“Just look at the body count we have.”

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