In late 1998, I accepted a transfer over to another area of the ArcelorMittal Dofasco plant, this time to the Hot Mill Gang Slitter. In and of it self, it wasn’t too bad of a place, as far as steel plant conditions go. Unfortunately at the time they had just installed a new operation in the back half of the building. There didn’t seem to be any problems, but then again, it only ran for an hour or two while the engineers and other line personnel tried to figure out start-up problems.
The Hot Mill Gang Slitter was just a simple operation that cut wide coils into multiple narrow coils. Again, I was assigned to Inspection, which no-one else seemed to want to do. There was no real handling of the coils except for checking widths and cut edge conditions. No additional oils or lubricants were used, so I thought it would be okay. Was I wrong!
The problems didn’t stem from the Hot Mill Gang Slitter, no they stemmed from the new operation, #1 Tube Mill. They would take some of the steel from the narrow coils, bend them into tubes and weld them. When I first went to the Hot Mill Gang Slitter the Tube Mill wasn’t really operational. They would only manage a few tubes at a time, so there was no way to tell how the air in the building would change. Yet as the Tube Mill came online and was fully operational, the problems with my respiratory system became worse, much worse.
Each of the chemicals used to help weld, help cut or to prevent rust from forming on the tubes were all respiratory irritants. Yet there were no ventilation hoods and no other precautions taken. Early in my time there it wasn’t too bad as the doors could be left open … at least until the company decided that was causing rust and everything got closed up for the shift, with no exhaust ventilation still in place. That’s when the respiratory problems escalated and I wasn’t the only one concerned. It didn’t’ help that excess rust inhibitor was being air blasted out of the finished tubes not 10 feet away from my work station and in the general direction of the Hot Mill Gang Slitter.
An electrician friend, complained constantly about having to clean the connections in the Powerhouse. The oils created a sticky, filmy mess that prevented the circuits from connecting and disconnecting properly, and it makes you wonder what was happening to the people who worked there and had to inhale it daily. Tractor drivers complained of not being able to breathe where the spraying was happening and feeling like they were choking. ArcelorMittal Dofasco finally relented and had representatives come and talk to everyone in the area. When confronted with the complaints the manufacturer of the oils would hide behind statements that everything used was below ministry standards. When asked about being irritants to existing respiratory problems they’re comment was you’re probably just over sensitive. When asked about these combinations of chemicals being less than 10 years old, they had no data for long-term exposures, and again hid behind being below ministry standards. I was told after the meeting that they would set up sensitivity testing at Dofasco Medical for me.
For myself, my symptoms became draining to say the least. What follows is what I experienced on a daily basis.
I would drive into work, leaving my home around 6 AM or PM to be there for the 12-hour shift. As I approached the industrial area of the city, my throat would begin to choke with phlegm. At the plant I would walk in the far door and not get 15 feet into the building before I began coughing and choking until I vomited out all of the phlegm that was forming, and occasionally loss of bladder control would happen because of the ferocity of the coughing. The next 12 hours would be a mix of coughing, choking, and vomiting. I would take my rescue inhaler in the hope that I would find some ease. The result was that an inhaler would last less than a month so I began researching what I could do to help myself breathe easier at work. I found that coffee was supposed to help easy respiratory problems in a pinch, so I gave it a try. The result was drinking 12 cups of coffee a day, which I wasn’t fond of, going through an emergency inhaler a month and still choking and suffering. As I would prepare to leave at the end of the shift, I would get to about 10 feet from the door when again I would cough violently and choke until the phlegm came up. Outside of the building I would make it my car and sit for 10 minutes coughing, vomiting phlegm into a bag and loosing control of my bladder. Once that calmed enough for me to drive, I would head home. At home, it would start again, and I would spend about 30 minutes in the bathroom vomiting into the sink while my body would spasm with the force of the coughing, loosing control of both bladder and bowel. Exhausted and spent, I would have a quick bite, a quick shower and crawl into bed by 8 to be able to repeat this for the coming shifts. My son was worried and would pace the hall in front of my bedroom. Yet there was nothing more I could do to assure him I would okay, then to say, “Yeah, I’m okay.”
A couple of weeks after the information session from the maker of the Tube Mill oils, I forgot my emergency inhaler. In ever-increasing respiratory distress, I called Dofasco Medical to make an appointment with them for the sensitivity testing that was to be set up. Dofasco Medical had never heard of this but they insisted I come over and meet with Dr. Chin. When I talked with Dr. Chin, I explained what I went through daily. His response was that I couldn’t continue to work like that and he took me out of the plant environment. Once out of the plant some of the experiences did lessen, at least I could control my bodily functions but the coughing, choking and phlegm seemed to now be the standard of everyday living. To my recollection, no WSIB forms were completed when I was removed from the plant and this began what I believe a selective reporting of incidents that involved my respiratory problems.
My family physician insisted that I return to being under a respirologist’s care. I agreed but said that I would not see Dr. Morse and would prefer not to go to St. Joseph’s Firestone Clinic. Needless to say, I ended up at the Firestone Clinic, this time as the patient of Dr. Sears. As I explained all of the things that I had experienced and how I felt then, Dr. Sears told me that it probably wasn’t asthma. Although no other diagnosis was offered, I felt at the time, that just maybe he would be willing to help me. Yet as time went on I realized that there would be no further help and no further testing other than the bare minimum to confirm asthma as a diagnosis. No other referrals for the feelings of choking or suffocating, no referrals for feeling of never getting enough air. When Dr. Sears told me that I should leave Dofasco if I could find a job that would pay me a similar wage as long as it was in the west end of the city or on the west escarpment, I thought at the least he would mention it in one of his reports, that way there would be just cause to leave. I believe if he would have done that, some respiratory health would still exist, and my life could have been different.
Eventually I got placed in one of the writer groups, writing Standard Operating Procedures. My story will continue there.