By Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER — Virginia MacKenzie doesn’t know when the cancer started, exactly, but she does remember the blood.
Her husband Ross MacKenzie had been upstairs having a bath. When he came down, she saw a crimson line running from his face.
“He said, ‘I can’t get it to stop,’” she said, recalling the weekend morning in 1986. “The blood was just dripping out the side. So I said, ‘You’re going to a doctor.’”
Tests showed Ross had developed a skin cancer lesion near his nose, which surprised someone who worked indoors and avoided the sun. After 38 years as an employee of the BF Goodrich rubber plant in Kitchener, he was forced to retire early, spending much of his remaining time as a sick man.
Ross died in 2007 at the age of 70, after three rounds of cancer, chronic lung issues and other health complications. Before he died, cancer had already claimed his six-week-old son, and 33-year-old daughter.
His wife believes the years of working at BF Goodrich exposed Ross’ family to carcinogens and shortened his own life, leaving her a widow and struggling to pay the mortgage. Eventually the bank foreclosed on their house.
She remembers sitting at her kitchen table, crying as the realtor told her she had no choice but to sign over the deed.
“Since my husband died, life hasn’t been easy,” she said. “You work your whole life for a company, then it’s all taken away from you.”
Today, MacKenzie lives in a small apartment on the bottom floor of a three-storey brick rental building in Kitchener. Cockroaches skitter through the walls as she speaks.
She can draw a straight line from her husband’s death to her current financial troubles. She blames the rubber plant for many of her problems. And she’s not alone.
In Kitchener, companies like Dominion Tire, Epton Industries, BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Canadian Consolidated Rubber, Merchants’ Rubber Co. and Ames Holden Tire and Rubber Co. once employed thousands. Those factories turned the city into the Rubber Capital of Canada, fuelling a manufacturing boom that brought jobs, new homes and population growth to the region.
But there’s widespread belief the rubber industry left behind a different kind of legacy for many of its workers — in the form of shortened lives, cancers and other health problems they blamed on exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Some are only just now experiencing symptoms of diseases they trace back to jobs they held decades ago. In many cases, the plants they worked in have long been demolished and the companies are long gone. Many believe local cemeteries are full of workers who died early deaths as a result of their exposure.
“The legacy of those plants is a lot of missing fathers and grandfathers,” said Joyce Cruickshank, a retired union counsellor with the local labour council.
Critics complain that rubber workers seeking compensation for illness later in life have the odds stacked against them. Of the 404 Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims filed between 2002 and 2017 by former employees of some of Kitchener’s largest rubber companies, only 15 per cent were accepted.
The claims were for a variety of illnesses, including various types of cancer. The vast majority, 249, were denied by the compensation board. A further 94 claims were considered “abandoned,” often because the worker couldn’t provide acceptable records. Sixty-one were approved.
Occupational disease experts argue Canada’s compensation boards are weighted heavily in favour of companies, not workers. Those who win compensation claims for illness remain the exception, not the norm, and their victories often only come after years of fighting.
“The compensation boards have failed to give these workers justice. And it’s only gotten worse. The overwhelming experience of most people is that they’re denied,” said Jim Brophy, a University of Windsor adjunct professor who has studied occupational disease for more than 30 years.
Rubber companies like Michelin North America, which purchased BF Goodrich in 1990, say they can’t speak to how plants were operated decades ago. But they argue the industry has improved a lot in the past 40 years, and say the safety and well-being of employees is a priority.
“We remain focused on safety and the well-being of our employees. We always work hand-in-hand with internal experts and external agencies to ensure our Michelin sites, operations and employees meet or exceed safety and government standards in our industry,” said Deborah Carty, a spokesperson for Michelin Canada.
Former workers’ fears aren’t just fuelled by anecdotal evidence. A study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC), a respected division of the World Health Organization, found people who worked in the rubber manufacturing industry have increased rates of leukemia, lymphoma, and cancers of the urinary tract, bladder, lung and stomach.
They were exposed to carcinogens in the form of dust, fumes and solvents during the rubber manufacturing process, according to IARC — chemicals that were often breathed in, although they can also be absorbed through the skin.
The IARC report pulled from studies of rubber workers across the globe. In one British study, rubber workers from the 1950s were found to have almost twice the rates of bladder cancer of the general population. A study in a rubber plant in Akron, Ohio showed an excess of stomach cancer among workers on a tire plant’s production line.
Despite the science connecting carcinogens in the workplace and elevated rates of cancer, most rubber workers’ claims are often rejected because of lifestyle factors like smoking. That’s despite the evidence that there’s a significant synergistic, or compounding, effect of cigarette smoking and occupational exposures on the lungs.
“The default position is that they were responsible for their own harm... These workers were left with a legacy of disease, and they have almost no recourse,” Brophy said.
Brophy argues it’s costing Ontario’s health-care system hundreds of millions of dollars for treatment of diseases that companies ought to be paying for.
Until 1978, rubber companies had no legal obligation to inform their workers that they may be exposed to materials that are hazardous to their health. Brophy says industrial workers have long been the “canaries in the coal mine” — and their early deaths are the reason we know about most of today’s regulated carcinogens.
Yet the health care system remains poorly trained to recognize occupational diseases, Brophy said. There may be many former workers who were sick but never drew a link to their old jobs, he said.
“If you go ask the average family doctor what went on in the rubber plants, and they wouldn’t have a clue. Workers are really on their own to prove this stuff,” he said. “The compensation system, in theory, is supposed to provide protection for the worker. But employers have always dominated the system.”
Decades ago, young men and women lined up eagerly to work in local rubber plants. Ross MacKenzie lied about his age to get a job at the BF Goodrich plant in 1953, at 15 — putting rocks in his pockets so he could pass the 150-pound minimum to work on the factory floor.
He met his future wife on one of his many walks past her house on his way to the rubber plant. MacKenzie, a teenager herself, noticed the tall, slim Nova Scotian boy passing by and started hanging out at the fence hoping to catch his eye. Their small talk led to a movie and then dating, marriage and building a family.
Ross started at BF Goodrich on a line making rubber hose, eventually working his way up to servicing the big Banbury mixers that blended the chemicals used to make more rubber products. His wife says he was regularly exposed to lamp black, cadmium and asbestos.
She wonders what hidden role that exposure played in the lives of their children. Their daughter Paula died of leukemia in 1987; a tumour was discovered in son Robert’s throat after his death as an infant in 1966.
“How do I know that the cancer wasn’t from me washing his clothes, and they got it?” she said. “We didn’t know anything about cancer then, because that was a long time ago.”
By 2003, Ross was fully involved in a fight with cancer. His retirement vanished in a blur of radiation treatments, endless hospital visits and unexplained illnesses. He died in November 2007.
“He didn’t really have a life after B.F. Goodrich. He didn’t get to enjoy his retirement,” MacKenzie said.
“He was exposed to chemicals that they should have known were toxic. He gave his all to Goodrich, and what did Goodrich give to him?”
His autopsy concluded “specific cause of death could not be determined.” But respiratory failure and other complications were factors.
MacKenzie later sought compensation for asbestosis — which in hindsight may have been too narrow a focus. She’s convinced his years at the plant, handling toxic materials often without any protective gear, contributed to his early death.
The WSIB didn’t agree. It ruled it was “more probable than not that the worker’s employment at BF Goodrich did not significantly contribute to the worker’s pulmonary disease, and ultimately his death.”
MacKenzie remains among hundreds of people who are convinced their family members’ deaths were connected to their employment in one of Kitchener’s rubber factories.
South of the border, hundreds of former workers have joined class action lawsuits in cities that, like Kitchener, once built their fortunes around rubber.
In Eau Claire, Wis., Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. recently settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by families of former employees who alleged injuries and deaths from exposure to benzene — a flammable liquid now known to cause cancer.
In Akron, Ohio, former rubber workers are also fighting for compensation, alleging they were made sick by the chemicals used in manufacturing process for rubber tires and products.
“Even with the knowledge that their workers were exposed to toxins at Ohio tire and rubber plants, corporations continued to manufacture dangerous products, failed to warn employees of the health risks, and failed to offer workers proper protection against the cancer-causing exposure,” their lawsuit alleges.
In Canada, however, workers forfeited their right to sue their former employers over occupational illnesses when government-run compensation boards were created. What they got was a system that’s deliberately adversarial to employees and overly concerned with reducing employers’ liabilities, Brophy argues.
Christine Arnott, a spokesperson for the WSIB, said the board disputes that view and is committed to getting compensation for workers who have legitimately become ill because of their work.
But accessing each case is complicated. The board needs to consider a lot of factors, including the person’s illness, workplace exposures and relevant lifestyle factors, she said.
“Often occupational disease claims are complex as exposure may have occurred many years ago and we are looking at the potential effects today. We have to base our decisions on the best scientific evidence available that may support a link between workplace exposures and a person’s current condition,” she said.
“As science evolves we’re always looking for new information that may help with this evidence-based decision-making.”
In some cases, fears that jobs in the rubber industry made people sick cut across generations. Michelle Barringer’s mother, a nonsmoker, worked at Uniroyal in the 1970s, and developed throat cancer in 2015. She died in 2016.
Her families still worries about the lingering impact of chemical exposure.
“My mom was 18 years old while working at Uniroyal and pregnant with me. I can’t tell you how upsetting and disturbing that info is to me. I will always wonder if Uniroyal knew the risks of working with Benzene but didn’t care,” Barringer said.
Some of the successful compensation cases defy explanation. Campbell Robertson, a former chemical engineer who worked at BF Goodrich for only four years in the 1960s — a fraction of the exposure of many front-line workers who were rejected — had his claim for compensation over bladder cancer accepted.
Robertson was diagnosed with cancer in August 2011, after finding blood in his urine. His claim, more than 40 years after he left BF Goodrich, was considered valid.
After he died in 2013 at the age of 70, his wife Marjorie Robertson told the Record the rubber industry needed to take responsibility for the hazardous chemicals she believes it exposed workers to.
Brophy argues there’s an inherent bias against former rubber workers because they often had lower levels of education and limited incomes in retirement to pursue compensation. As many as 30 per cent of the cancers suffered by blue collar workers are thought to be caused by workplace carcinogens, according to Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.
Wayne Samuelson, a former BF Goodrich employee and past president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, believes former rubber industry workers should be deeply concerned about the impact their jobs had on their health.
The links between diseases like asbestosis and cancer and work in the rubber industry have long been well-established. And yet there are many who are sick and don’t know why, he said.
“There are people who are sick today in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge with cancers that can easily be linked back to where they worked,” he said.
“And they’ll never know.”
He worked at BF Goodrich in the 1970s, and says he had no idea the chemicals he handled were potentially harmful. The former labour leader says he gets his bladder checked regularly as a result, and considers himself lucky that he’s cancer-free.
Samuelson is angry when he thinks about how many lives have been altered by the rubber industry.
“These are companies people have given their lives to,” he said. “I just get so frustrated. And it’s all about money.”
David Schneider understands that frustration. For almost 20 years, he also worked at BF Goodrich, and was exposed to lamp black, carbon and rubber powder — part of a “veritable soup of carcinogens,” according to one pathologist who studied WSIB claims from rubber workers.
Schneider didn’t draw a connection between his throat cancer and his former job until he began compiling a list of former co-workers who worked on the same floor and had the same job and had died of cancer. He was stunned at the names —he quit counting when he hit two dozen.
“I was surprised. I didn’t realize how many people had died,” he said.
The 79-year-old applied for compensation after attending a meeting organized by the United Steelworkers at a local hall. But the union went broke before his case could be heard, and his claim was passed onto the Office of the Worker Advisor, an independent agency of the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
It took five years for Schneider’s case to be heard by the WSIB. The panel turned down his claim in 2015. He appealed, and was rejected again this past April.
Schneider, who left school after Grade 9 to work full-time in construction and pulp mills on the west coast, started working at BF Goodrich in his early 20s. He was working at a pulp mill in B.C. when he was laid off — and followed a friend’s advice to find a job in Kitchener.
In 1996, Schneider’s doctor noticed his voice was raspy. Tests confirmed a tumour, and he underwent 36 rounds of radiation treatment. He paid $1,600 to have all of his teeth pulled, due to damage caused by the radiation.
The physician who studied his case, Dr. Mike Pysklywec, found that Schneider’s exposure in the rubber industry was a significant contributing factor in causing his laryngeal cancer.”
There was just one problem. Schneider also smoked. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal ultimately decided since he was exposed to carcinogens at both work and in his personal life, they couldn’t determine how much of his cancer could be blamed on his job at the rubber plant.
“We will never know the exact nature of all of these or the total exposure load and there is no magical formula which will allow us to apportion blame,” the tribunal wrote in its decision.
Schneider came away from the process feeling like the board wasn’t interested in his anecdotal evidence and quick to disregard what he felt were alarming rates of cancer among his co-workers, Schneider said.
“They blame you,” he said. “They don’t want to look at the whole group, they just look at the individual.”
Long before his cancer was diagnosed, Schneider’s life was already altered by his job. His injured his back while working at the rubber plant, and had to retire in 1982 — getting a lump-sum pension payout of $4,525.
Life has been difficult since. He and his wife had to sell their house, and grow deeper in debt each month as they lean on lines of credit to pay for bills and groceries.
“I lost most of my life because of that place,” he said.
The last BF Goodrich plant in Kitchener closed 2006, putting 1,100 people out of work as Michelin moved operations to plants in Alabama and Indiana.
Virginia MacKenzie, meanwhile, is still angry over the loss of her husband. Today she’s alone in a small apartment that she shares with two dogs, and is mourning — for the loss of Ross, the loss off her house, the loss of a retirement they didn’t get to share together.
She will always wonder, like so many others who became sick many years after they left a job in rubber industry, what companies like BF Goodrich knew, and when.
And she wants to know why there has been so little justice for so many of them when it came to seeking compensation.