Calls for lower levels of diesel particulate exposure in Ontario mining

Union and partners point to higher rates of lung cancer among mine workers

Calls for lower levels of diesel particulate exposure in Ontario mining

A workers’ union, along with its partners, launched a project to change Ontario’s legislation for diesel particulate exposure in mining.

The USW Diesel Particulate Project – launched by the United Steelworkers Local 6500, the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) at Laurentian University and Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) – calls for the provincial government to reduce the Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) for diesel particulate in mining.

Underground miners face serious health risks from exposure to diesel particulate matter, contained in the exhaust released from the heavy diesel-powered vehicles and equipment used in mines for hauling, drilling, and transporting personnel.

Currently, Ontario has the highest (OEL) for diesel particulate in Canada at 400µg/m3, exposing mining workers in the province to harmful levels of diesel particulate, according to the union. The project aims to bring that number down to 20µg/m3, which is the level recommended by both Carcinogen Exposure Canada (CAREX) and the Occupational Cancer Research Centre.

“Occupational disease and fatalities are underrecognized,” says Nick Larochelle, president of USW Local 6500. “We know that diesel particulate can cause lung cancer and we know that miners have higher rates of lung cancer compared to other workers, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development needs to act to lower the OEL for diesel in mining to prevent these work-related fatalities.”

The union noted diesel particles are small enough to enter the lungs during breathing and the smallest particles are able to get into the deepest parts of the lungs and can then enter the rest of the body. Within hours to days, exposure to high levels of diesel particulate can cause headaches; dizziness; irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; wet cough and phlegm; running nose and allergy symptoms; and asthma attack.

“These short-term health risks can impact daily, quality-of-life for workers. Years of diesel particulate exposure can or may cause cancer; cardiovascular disease (CVD); idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF); chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema; onset of asthma or worsening of asthma and worsening of diabetic comorbidities,” it says.

Ontario lags behind the United States, Europe, and Australia in lowering its Occupational Exposure Limit, even though countries and provinces measure diesel particulate levels in different ways, said USW Local 6500.

Currently, inspectors from the Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development are conducting a provincial inspection blitz on hazards associated with air quality and workplace hazardous materials in underground mines.

USW Local 6500 and CROSH have developed and distributed educational materials to raise awareness about the hazards of exposure to diesel particulate. They are encouraging workers and their family members to fill out WSIB exposure forms on their diesel exposure, with the goal of showing the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development the seriousness of this workplace hazard.

The group will also hold a townhall at the USW Local 6500 Union Hall (66 Brady St, Sudbury, Ont.) on Dec. 8, where group representatives and community volunteers will be available to answer or assist any WSIB requests including documenting exposures. Project and community leaders will also give an overview presentation starting at 7 p.m.

“I strongly encourage everyone to support the USW Diesel Particulate Project,” says Janice Martell, lead advocate for the McIntyre Powder Project. “Based on the current occupational exposure limit, mine workers can be exposed to 20 times more diesel particulate than the scientifically recommended level. Workers are urged to fill out exposure forms to protect their health.”

Ontario construction workers are also exposed to unsafe levels of diesel engine exhaust, according to a previous report.