Between Thursday, May 15 and Tuesday, May 20, five employees with the Town of Carbonear's public works department received letters from their employer in the mail.
In each letter, the workers - four labourers and a heavy equipment operator - were informed there was a chance they had been exposed to asbestos on a jobsite.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre formerly used in buildings and structures because of its highly durable qualities. It is no longer used because it is a dangerous substance when the fibres are inhaled, and has been known to cause chronic illnesses, such as mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening.
No knowledge of presence
The workers, who The Compass has decided not to identify due to the sensitivity of the situation, were responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of the former Bond Theatre on Water Street following a fire April 23.
The building, which had been renovated about a decade ago, had vinyl siding placed over asbestos siding (transite sheeting), something the town was unaware of.
"It never occurred to staff that there was a threat of exposure to asbestos, otherwise, (workers) would not have been sent to the site, nor would (they) have placed themselves in an unsafe situation," town administrator Cynthia Davis told The Compass.
It was a few days after the possible exposure when one of the workers witnessed a clean-up crew in protective attire picking up debris. When he spoke with them, he learned asbestos was present.
A call was made to Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) and the town, and soon after a sign was erected notifying the public and site workers that there was asbestos present.
Low-risk, says OH&S
Service NL spokesperson Vanessa Coleman-Sadd informed The Compass through email a complaint had been issued on May 7 by an affected employee. Coleman-Sadd referred to the exposure as "non-friable, which has minimal risk for exposure."
The asbestos awareness program at the University of Toronto compares friable asbestos with non-friable.
It describes non-friable as a "product ... in which the asbestos fibres are bound or locked into the product matrix, so that the fibres are not readily released. Such a product would present a risk for fibre release, only when it is subject to significant abrasion through activities such as sanding or cutting with electric power tools."
Siding and other solid asbestos materials fit into that category.
A concern that the fire, the use of high pressure fire hoses on the building and the use of leaf blowers being considered significant abrasion was discussed by a worker. He believed the agitation may have lead to the breaking apart of the product, thus a danger to those on site without protective gear.
One worker was especially concerned because tools used for the job included leaf blowers, which could have blown asbestos remnants into the air, and potentially into their lungs.
It could take years or decades before effects can be seen from possible exposure.
An asbestos removal company was brought in to help clear debris. There are some 100 registered asbestos abatement contractors with the provincial government.
In the letters, workers were advised to see a doctor, just in case exposure had taken place. At least two had x-rays completed on their respiratory system by Friday, May 23.
If the exposure does cause any health issues, Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation commission outlined for The Compass what types of treatment an employee could receive.
"Compensation may include wage-loss benefits; health care benefits to cover the costs of medications, treatments, assistive devices, personal care and other services as medically necessary; and, a lump sum permanent functional impairment award for permanent restrictions resulting from the disease," Carla Riggs, communications director for the organization, told The Compass in an email.
This was the first incident the town administrator has been made aware of since she began her position 16 years ago. Davis has confirmed more training in hazard recognition will be completed.
"This situation has been an eye-opener for everyone ... but it provides an opportunity now to complete further training in hazard recognition and to identify the possibility of such a hazard for future jobs," explained Davis. "(It will also help) identify controls for implementation in (the) future so staff are not exposed to hazardous materials that could post a risk to their health and safety."
Editor's note: The Compass was informed of a fifth worker that had been in the vacinity of the work site who may have also been exposed. We apologize for the error.