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More WorkSafeBC inspectors target risky asbestos handling

Peter Simpson is CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders
Peter Simpson is CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association.
— image credit: File

WorkSafeBC should broaden a crackdown now underway against construction contractors who illegally expose workers and residents to asbestos contamination, according to an industry spokesman.

The Crown agency has an expanded team of 10 inspectors in the Lower Mainland now hunting for improper asbestos handling, typically at sites where old homes are being demolished or renovated.

Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association CEO Peter Simpson applauds the move but says more must be done to target unlicensed renovators and builders who are more likely to break the rules.

"There's a lot of underground stuff going on," said Simpson, noting under-the-table dealing has increased as a result of the Harmonized Sales Tax.

"They need to ferret out the unscrupulous folks who operate under the radar to avoid getting permits and avoid WorkSafeBC compliance."

Simpson said homeowners should also take responsibility and ensure their home is assessed for environmental hazards, particularly if it's older than 1980.

If asbestos is found and needs to be removed, they should ensure they use only reputable, licensed builders.

Improper removal during renovation can leave residents exposed to asbestos fibres and cause lung disease or cancer decades later.

"You can't see it, you can't smell it and you can't taste it," said Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC's regional director for construction.

"You breathe it in and you breathe it out and some of it goes deep into your lungs and you don't even know if you've been exposed."

He said 25 to 30 house demolitions have already been shut down over asbestos mishandling so far in 2011.

Several old houses are coming down daily in the City of Vancouver alone, he noted, adding the team welcomes public tips on suspicious worksites.

"There's enough out there to keep our 10 guys very busy," Johnson said.

Simpson said some of his members are also concerned remediators who remove asbestos have jacked their prices dramatically in response to the WorkSafeBC enforcement drive.

He's also troubled by reports that some firms that assess buildings may falsely report no asbestos content, eliminating steep removal costs and allowing a cheaper renovation or demolition to proceed.

"The homeowners and the renovators should have the confidence that the assessor knows what they're doing and is not fudging the results," Simpson said.

WorkSafeBC last year fined Bhupinder Chahal (BC Hazmat Inspections Ltd.) $1,750 for repeatedly certifying asbestos had been safely removed from sites in Coquitlam when the firm did not know who removed the materials or how it was done.

"It did not conduct any sampling to confirm that the worksite was free of contamination before certfiying it was safe for the workers to enter," according to WorkSafeBC's annual enforcement report.

Other firms – including Canadian Custom Homes Centre Ltd. in Coquitlam, Nystart Developments Corp. in Vancouver and Skylite Building Maintenance in Burnaby – were fined $2,500 last year for overseeing job sites where workers weren't correctly safeguarded against asbestos exposure.

Once asbestos-contaminated material is removed from a site, it's supposed to go to the Vancouver Landfill in Delta, where workers equipped to handle the material ensure it's deeply buried.

Most construction waste goes to commercial recycling operations, which screen for hazardous waste and take it to the landfill.

Metro Vancouver transfer stations also screen incoming loads to make sure asbestos isn't being dumped there, exposing workers to harm.

Suspicious loads are required to undergo testing.

Paul Remillard, Metro's division manager for contracted services, said it's rare that any asbestos makes it into the transfer stations, adding regular testing shows asbestos is well within safe levels.

But Simpson said unlicensed operators who are already dodging WorkSafeBC scrutiny and other standards may not follow any of the rules on disposal either.

"It's going to be dumped at the side of a road somewhere," Simpson predicted, adding more must also be done to combat the trend towards illegal dumping.

Surrey spent $830,000 last year cleaning up illegal dump sites discovered within its boundaries, a 22 per cent increase.

The roadside trash piles often contain insulation, drywall and ceiling tiles – the types of waste that can be contaminated with asbestos.

A Surrey firm was recently ordered to pay $15,000 for illegally dumping asbestos-laden drywall last year at a New Westminster recycling facility.

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