General Motors St. Catharines Cancer Cluster  

by Bruce Allen1



From the late 1950s (and perhaps earlier) until approximately the mid-1980s General Motors (GM) workers working on the brake bonding assembly line and the adjacent calliper assembly line located on the west side of the Components Plant in St. Catharines, Ontario continuously assembled brake assemblies containing asbestos brake linings. On the brake bonding assembly line these asbestos brake linings were continually ground to a specified thickness on grinding machines. Holes were continually drilled in these brake linings. Rivets were continually punched into them in order to be able to attach these linings to brake shoes for assembly. Following this, the brake shoes with these asbestos linings attached to them were moved to the adjacent calliper assembly line for further assembly and were then transported to the final disc brake assembly line located elsewhere on the west side of the Components Plant. The final assemblies built there would then leave the department. These processes resulted in the brake bonding assembly line and the calliper assembly line being saturated with asbestos fibres. These fibres could be conspicuously seen everywhere in the immediate area including in the air the workers breathed.

Simply stated the assembly workers employed on these assembly lines would engage in continuous physical contact with asbestos every day they worked and would likewise inhale asbestos fibres as they worked. Skilled trades workers who worked on the machines involved in these assembly processes also came into direct physical contact with asbestos fibres in a major way and would inhale asbestos fibres on a continuous basis. It is also noteworthy that airborne asbestos fibres were inevitably not confined to the immediate area and would have circulated throughout the west side of the Components Plant to an undetermined extent. Some twenty-five or more workers worked on these two assembly operations per shift when they were running with a full crew. Throughout most of the years that asbestos brake linings were used in these assembly operations there were two or more shifts per day. Full crews working on two shifts and a partial crew on the midnight shift were not unusual. Accordingly, it would not be an exaggeration to state that throughout the decades long time span during which asbestos brake linings were in use, thousands of workers were employed in these operations at one time or another. A considerable number of workers were employed in these operations for most of their career at General Motors and a great many of them were women.

Health and safety precautions were minimal. Prior to the late 1970s, the workers working with the asbestos brake linings did so without any awareness whatsoever of the risks involved. They routinely used air hoses to blow asbestos fibres off the machines they worked on and away from the work stations where they did their jobs. There were even occasions when asbestos fibres were tossed around like sand as the workers engaged in horseplay. Open air lunch tables where the workers ate were situated right next to the assembly lines and even close to the machines which drilled holes and ground the asbestos linings. Most workers personal protective equipment consisted of no more than safety glasses, safety shoes, gloves and ear plugs.

General Motors knew there was a problem by the end of the 1970s. The company had people working in the immediate area at that time undergo x-rays. Very limited changes to working conditions were implemented. Vacuuming of the area began to be done on the day shift. Electric tow motors were brought into the area to replace gas tow motors because the emissions from gas tow motors contributed to the problem of the asbestos fibres becoming airborne. But those measures were about the extent of the remedial changes to working conditions that were made.

Significantly, the danger to the workers did not end with the cessation of the use of asbestos brake linings in brake assemblies approximately in the mid-1980s. Airborne asbestos fibres were still present in the area years later. A GM hygienist has acknowledged the continued presence of asbestos in the area up to the early 1990s. Asbestos fibres are likely still present in the area to this day on overhead ceiling pipes. Nonetheless those who have been most at risk are obviously the workers who worked in the area prior to the mid-1980s. With the latency period associated with asbestos related occupational diseases this means that we are now in a time period when a cluster of asbestos related cancers could be expected to emerge. This is precisely what is happening today.

Prior to 2007, there were undoubtedly asbestos related deaths affecting workers who had been employed on these assembly lines. But it is impossible to determine the extent to which such deaths occurred. Then, in late 2007, an otherwise healthy retired machine repair employee developed respiratory problems. He was seen by a surgeon at a local hospital in St. Catherines who, following diagnostic imaging, asked him whether he had worked in the mines. The worker had not. He was perplexed by the question. Following subsequent discussion of his problem and of his work history with myself it became apparent that the problem was traceable back to the years he worked in the 1970s repairing machines on the brake bonding assembly line. While performing repairs on those machines he had had routine and extensive, direct exposure to the asbestos fibres permeating the area at the time. He was then diagnosed with mesothelioma, making it obvious that there could only be one cause of his disease. Accordingly, the worker had no difficulty getting a Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claim for mesothelioma allowed. Sadly he died just months later.

In the same time period, a retired toolmaker who had also worked in the same area of the Components Plant also filed and had a worker's compensation claim for mesothelioma allowed. This claim was allowed despite the fact that he was then residing in Britain where he still lives.

These developments prompted me to actively encourage workers who had been exposed to asbestos, particularly in these assembly operations, to come forward and document their history of exposure using the WSIB's Workers Exposure Incident Forms. Dozens of active and retired workers came forward. Their personal accounts resulted in the compilation of a large, compelling body of evidence of the extent and duration of workers' exposure to asbestos on the west side of the General Motors Components Plant not to mention of the employer's failure to effectively address the problem.

Recently, another of the workers who worked in the area developed a brain tumour. She developed the tumour after having developed lung cancer. Lung cancer was diagnosed as her primary cancer. A biopsy concluded that she had metastatic cancer (small cell type). This worker had worked for years on the brake bonding and calliper assembly lines. Her exposure to asbestos throughout that time was considerable and its duration met the threshold established by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for allowing a claim for lung cancer. Significantly, the Workers Exposure Incident Form the worker had filed was one of the documents in the file for her WSIB lung cancer claim.

Most importantly, in the decision to allow the worker's claim the WSIB Claims Adjudicator explicitly acknowledged the existence of a cancer cluster among the workers who had worked on the brake bonding and calliper assembly lines. This should prove to be a pivotal development in terms of the prospects for the allowance of future cancer claims for the workers who had been exposed to asbestos while working on these assembly lines. The tragedy of all of this is that many more WSIB claims by active and retired General Motors Components Plant workers for asbestos related cancer are likely to be allowed over the coming years. Indeed, one of the retired workers who provided a signed statement about the extent of the presence of asbestos fibres where he and the woman worker referred to above had worked wryly told me well over a year ago that because of his many years of work in the very same area on the west side of the General Motors Components Plant he considered himself “a walking time bomb”. One can only hope that his words do not prove to be prophetic.

May 12, 2009


1 Bruce Allen is the Vice-President of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 199.



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