My first clue was the coughing and wheezing that wouldn’t go away. Up until March 2005, I had completed 17 marathons and played hockey for more than 32 years. I was in very good physical shape. But I knew something wasn’t right when I started training for the June 2005 marathon. I was coughing and wheezing all the time.
I didn’t have asthma as a child. I had never smoked. So I went to see my doctor and he sent me for allergy testing. But that wasn’t the culprit either. Then my doctor started asking questions about my work environment.
I had worked at a large dairy in Manitoba for more than 17 years. In my last nine years there, I worked at a machine that filled containers with dairy products. Before the machine filled a container, it was sanitized with a fine mist.
For years, I had been breathing in that chemical mist without proper ventilation or protective equipment. After a lot of tests and examinations, my doctor diagnosed occupational asthma.
The chemical I had been breathing in over the years caused me permanent lung damage. My doctor says I’ve lost 26 per cent of my lung capacity. The only protective equipment I wore was my work smock and safety glasses. No mask. No ventilator. The building I worked in was 97 years old and had walls three feet thick. Ventilation was a huge problem.
I was off on sick leave for 14 months. When I returned to work, I was transferred to an office position for six months. But after that, my employer wasn’t willing to accommodate me for other positions. So I resigned.
I used to run marathons. Now it’s difficult for me to shovel snow or walk up stairs. I’m only 44 and I can no longer play any of my favourite sports. My whole quality of life has changed dramatically.
I fought for four years to get my condition recognized as work-related asthma by my employer. After being denied compensation seven times, I am currently in negotiations with Workman’s Compensation for a final settlement.
I work as an educational assistant, which is great. But I’m concerned for other workers who may be exposed to something in their workplaces that could cause them permanent lung damage.
If there’s just one thing I’d like to tell other workers, it’s this: Be fully aware of all the substances that you work with. If you don’t have a health and safety committee, be proactive and form one. Know your risks. And protect yourself. It happened to me, it could happen to you.