After multiple denials, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board concedes that toxic chemicals played a key role in the premature death of an Ontario employee at General Electric.
Ron Lebeau worked in one of the most toxic areas of the GE Peterborough plant for 20 years, and was constantly surrounded by carcinogens during his time there. By the time improved protective gear was introduced in 1990, he has speculated to his family that it may be too little too late. He was right.
“He would come home every day with small pieces of some type of glass in his hair, his clothes destroyed from dumping liquid into the tanks, dipping the armatures into the tanks and removing them and using asbestos gloves to put armatures into a hot oven to be baked,” said Sandy Lebeau, Lebeau’s widow. “They also used blankets of asbestos to cover the ovens and keep the heat in.”
Ron died of stomach cancer at just 39 years old, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. Sandy filed for compensation from WSIB, knowing in her heart that Ron’s death was caused by the toxic chemicals at work. “He would say, ‘I’ll never retire from GE, the chemicals there will kill me first.’ Working at GE took his life away.”
For more than two decades, WSIB denied any connection between his death and the chemicals at the plant. Then, in May 2017, a group of researchers reported that the chemicals at GE had in fact caused several cancer cases in the community, supporting numerous workers’ claims.
The details of the settlement are yet to be determined, but WSIB’s approval of the claim has left Lebeau’s widow and her daughters relieved that justice is finally being meted out.
Although Lebeau and her family and friends were at the heart of this, many people and organizations contributed, including Unifor, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc, Office of the Worker Adviser and the GE Retirees Advisory Committee. The advisory committee put together the breakthrough report, sponsored by Unifor, on the extraordinary range of toxic exposures suffered by workers in the GE plant and the many supporters and activists in the Peterborough area.
"We are so pleased to see that after 24 years Sandy will finally see justice and compensation for her late husband Ron,” said Sue James, Chairperson of the GE Retirees Advisory Committee. “We will continue to fight this fight and be a voice for our brothers and sisters who have died and who are still suffering the affects of multiple carcinogens in the workplace.”
Over the last 14 years, 662 past and present employees of GE in Peterborough have filed claims. 255 claims were for cancer. 71 have been allowed, 61 were abandoned, and 119 have been denied.