Workers Health & Safety Centre

Canadians need consistent protection against asbestos says CSA

Canadians continue to suffer from preventable exposures to asbestos; a national standard might better address this ongoing and significant health threat.
Canadians continue to suffer from preventable exposures to asbestos. A new report explores how a national standard might better address this ongoing and significant health threat.

The report, prepared for the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) by a team of Canadian researchers, identifies key gaps and inconsistencies in how asbestos management is regulated in Canada and provides support for the development of a national asbestos management standard.

Given the long and deadly impact of this carcinogen, the report is garnering attention.

Health and economic impacts

CAREX Canada estimates 152,000 Canadians are exposed to asbestos in their workplaces each year. Even with the federal government’s asbestos ban in 2018, exemptions allow for continued use in military, nuclear and chlor-alkali industries and in road infrastructure built before the ban took effect. Asbestos is still found in many buildings, often undocumented. As it degrades or is disturbed during renovations it can pose a health threat to anyone living and working in these settings.
Asbestos causes mesothelioma, cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, as well as asbestosis, a chronic lung disease. A 2017 report on the burden of occupational cancer in Ontario estimated some 55,000 Ontario workers are exposed to asbestos causing some 630 lung cancers, 140 mesotheliomas, 15 laryngeal cancers and less than five ovarian cancers annually. Other research estimated the cost to Canadians of newly diagnosed cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer in 2011 due to work-related asbestos exposures to be $2.35 billion.

Asbestos management. Gaps and inconsistencies.

For the CSA study, researchers completed an environmental scan of existing regulations for managing and controlling workplace exposure to asbestos in Canada and in several international jurisdictions, a literature review and a series of 31 key informant interviews to gather insights on the possible benefits of a new asbestos standard.

The researchers found a number of gaps and inconsistencies in how asbestos management is currently regulated in Canada. These include:

Jurisdictional responsibility. Legal responsibility and oversight of asbestos management is divided between federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal authorities creating compliance challenges for those working in several jurisdictions and enforcement issues for regulators. The management of asbestos in Canada is governed by 37 occupational health and safety laws, 18 environmental laws, two pieces of public health legislation and 14 other laws (for example those governing the transportation of dangerous goods).

Inconsistency in asbestos definitions. Conflicting definitions of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACM) creates challenges in the assessment of asbestos, the selection of controls and the management and safe disposal of asbestos waste. Currently, there is variation across Canada with regard to a minimum threshold of asbestos required for a material to be considered an ACM.

Training. Significant differences in training for asbestos-exposed workers and supervisors, as well as competency requirements for those doing asbestos remediation work. Stakeholders believe this has led to the “widespread presence of ‘fly-by-night' contractors” whose workers are often inadequately trained.

Awareness. There is a lack of public awareness about the presence of asbestos in the built environment. Poor documentation leaves those who live and work in these settings unaware of the high risk of exposure. No Canadian jurisdiction requires asbestos inventories and risk assessments to be performed in residential buildings, a risk to workers who may be exposed to ACM while doing renovations. 

Towards a national approach — training is critical

A consensus-based standard would be a critical step toward a consistent and more protective approach to asbestos management and remediation across Canada. Training and competency are an area most in need of standardization notes the CSA report: “The importance of education and training cannot be overstated – particularly for those in occupations with a higher probability of coming into contact with ACM during their work.”

This issue was previously documented in a 2019 study of custodial workers in Ontario schools who reported ACMs were not well managed and training for this work was inadequate.
Calls to action on asbestos were among recommendations in the Burden of Occupational Cancer in Canada report. It called for public registries of all buildings and workplaces which contain asbestos, provincial inter-ministerial working groups to develop an implementation framework for the asbestos ban, a mandatory national standard and legal framework for asbestos disposal and an end to asbestos ban exemptions.

Legal obligations for employer and building owners too

Ontario’s Occupational Health & Safety Act requires employers and supervisors to identify workplace hazards, including asbestos and ACM, and take every precaution reasonable for the protection of a worker. Specific duties are set out in Regulation 490/09 Designated Substances which applies to industrial and mining establishments.

Additionally, Regulation 278/05 Asbestos on Construction Projects and in Buildings and Repair Operations applies to project owners, constructors, employers and workers on the project. Building owners also have specific obligations to prepare and maintain an ongoing asbestos management plan. It must include a record of ACM locations (to be updated every 12 months or when new information becomes available) which must be shared with employees and others, along with specific control measures including worker training.

WHSC can help too!

For workplaces needing to address asbestos-related hazards, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers an Asbestos awareness training program and a resource line fact sheet.

If your workplace employs 20 or more workers or has a designated substance onsite, such as asbestos, a joint health and safety committee (JHSC) is required. Employers must also "carry out" Certification training for at least two members of the JHSC, one worker representative and one management representative, including approved JHSC Certification Part IJHSC Certification Part II and JHSC Certification Refresher. These programs are offered in safe, convenient WHSC virtual classrooms.

Don’t see what you need? Beyond scheduled classes, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.

Related resources:
Canadian Environmental Law Association--Asbestos Remediation in Ontario Schools
Contact a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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