More than a third of workplace illness in B.C. in the last five years is a result of exposure to asbestos, and the province is taking the “long overdue” step of licensing contractors and making specialized training mandatory, Labour Minister Harry Bains says.
Bains introduced legislation Wednesday to make the changes, and he expects to have consultation with the industry done and new rules in place by the end of the 2022. The law will be administered by WorkSafeBC for employee protection, and does not extend to do-it-yourself projects, many of which do not require permits.
Asbestos was phased out of Canadian building materials in the 1980s once the health risks of the mineral fibre material were understood, but renovations and demolition of old buildings continues to expose people who don’t follow strict containment and ventilation rules while doing the work.
“The problem is that the workers are paying with their lives right now,” Bains told Black Press Media Feb. 16.
Exposure to asbestos can lead to mesothelioma, a type of cancer, and asbestosis, which is almost always fatal within two years of diagnosis. In 2021, asbestos exposure was a contributing factor in 53 of 161 workplace deaths in B.C., with exposure dating back more than 20 years in some cases.
Work to regulate asbestos abatement, the industry name that includes isolating and preventing exposure in some buildings, began under the previous government. A 2018 report from the ministries of health, municipal affairs and labour recommended the licensing and training, and highlighted problems with non-compliance and improper disposal of contaminated materials.
The report also identifies the concern about additional costs and regulations pushing more renovation and demolition work into the underground economy.