It has taken years of persistence and an army of warriors but it is finally happening – the conspiracy of silence around the hazardous work environment at the Peterborough General Electric plant is unravelling. The documentary Town of Widows aired on CBC on Thursday August 8, 2019, providing national exposure to finally put an end to the silence.
I want my late husband Ed Condon’s name and story remembered, as his life mattered along with all of his GE coworkers’ lives.
Dangerous work at GE
Ed started at the GE Peterborough plant when he was only 16 years old and worked there for 42 years in some of the most caustic areas of the plant. He paid the ultimate cost – his life.
Throughout his life, he took impeccable care of himself – he never smoked, never drank, exercised every day on his lunch break, maintained a healthy diet and a good work/life balance. Ed’s healthy lifestyle helped him live longer but it couldn’t undue the deadly effects of his toxic work environment.
Ed was an eternal optimist who loved life and nothing made him more fulfilled than spending time with his family and enjoying nature with his three grandchildren.
When given a terminal diagnosis of glioblastoma (inoperable brain cancer) in 2012 at age 63, he chose to live his final five months to the fullest, continued to make irreplaceable memories and began the battle that our family continues to fight against the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).
Navigating the WSIB
Many warned us the WSIB process would be a long, tedious and frustrating one. Our family chose to approach it with an open mind. As a way to strengthen community awareness, Ed was interviewed by the local media shortly after his diagnosis.
When Ed first submitted his glioblastoma claim, he was assessed and his vast work history was compiled. Ed shared experiences such as the need to hang his work clothes outside because of their extreme chemical smell. Some chronic issues he suffered from over the years included: chronic lung issues; constant burning smell in nose; open, draining ulcers on fingers; unexplained rashes; residue varnish on skin; and nose bleeds. These symptoms were not unique to Ed, as many GE workers reported the same issues.
In 2013-2014 we were connected with the Occupational & Environmental Health Coalition – Peterborough which helped us become politically active and provided unwavering support.
It was our hope that Ed would have closure on his claim prior to his death. That did not happen nor has it happened to date.
The WSIB process has been our greatest disappointment. It is a fragmented, deceptive, and completely mismanaged system from our experience. Adjudicators were changed frequently, and answers provided were vague and misleading.
Initially we were told there were no other brain cancers from GE, only to learn that the WSIB reported six GE Peterborough employees with brain cancer. The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, who assessed Ed’s claim, has reports of 13 brain cancer/brain tumour claims. The national average expects between 2-3 glioblastomas to appear for every 100,000 people. At its peak GE Peterborough employed 6600. If we were to assume that over the years 50,000 people worked at GE, which I believe is a very generous number, we would be lucky to see 1 or 2 glioblastomas. It doesn’t add up.
Moving forward in the process, the Office of Worker Advisor (OWA) became involved May 2016 and continues to fight our battle to this day.
Uncovering the extent of exposures
Retrospective mapping of the plant was done by many invaluable volunteers to track the exposures in the Peterborough plant. The report identified over 4,000 chemicals and toxins, 40 of which are known human carcinogens. It states GE in the US was warned about the hazards and health effects of asbestos and other industrial chemicals affecting GE workforce as far back as 1922-1934. The synergistic effect (combining of all the chemicals and toxins) created a perfect storm of events to produce vast numbers of different cancers in the workers.
Another moment of hope was when The Toronto Star published their investigative exposé on the lethal legacy that GE had on our workers and in our community. Political pressure from that series and through the community forced WSIB to reconsider Ed’s claim. In total, three hygiene assessments and three medical consultant reviews were done by the same two individuals as when our claim was denied previously. Our hope for an unbiased review was unmet.
Submissions were filed and a second decision rendered in the summer of 2018. In those submissions, the OWA uncovered evidence of chromium, benzene, cadmium, electromagnetic field (EMS), iron, lead, mercury, oil mists, solvents, toluene, trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and xylene, all of which have evidence of contributing to glioblastoma.
We are at the last level of appeal at WSIB – and an in-person hearing was denied by the WSIB. It is my belief that the WSIB does not want to put a face to the claim. It is easier to deny a submission than a person. If the appeal is not successful, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal is our last chance. Having our story told nationally, is hopefully another.
Fighting for justice
We have been very vocal in our fight for presumptive legislation for GE Peterborough workers. Presumptive legislation only applies to firefighters. Ed surpassed all the thresholds in the firefighter legislation. A firefighter needs to work for 10 years to qualify for compensation for glioblastoma. Ed was exposed to copious amounts of toxins and chemicals daily for 42 years.
Ed’s claim was denied due to lack of ionizing radiation exposure. Firefighters are not exposed to ionizing radiation. What makes it appropriate for the WSIB to determine eligibility based on the occupation and not the exposure? Factory workers should be treated with the same fairness and equity as firefighters. All lives matter regardless of the occupation.
Increased awareness affords opportunity for improvements and positive change. We can all do better. Please watch my husband’s story and our collective fight to see what their lives were worth.