Recently, a study led by University of Toronto (U of T) chemical engineer Greg Evans published in Environmental Science and Technology demonstrated that that trains and platforms of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) have higher levels of air pollution than other transportation systems in Canada.
There is particulate matter (PM) in the air found circulating in the subway system. PM includes dust, but what is at issue is particulates that are much smaller than dust called PM2.5. The numeric value is based according to the size of the particulate measured in micrometers.
These particulates can only be seen using a microscope. The smaller the PM, the more damage they cause to your health as these particulates stick to the interior of the lung once it is inhaled. Once there, PM2.5 can irritate the lungs and cause health issues.
PM2.5 is caused by many things including the wheels and brakes on the subway trains. The braking system causes small combustions causing fine particulates to be released into the air as small as PM2.5. Once in the air, it can remain for days or weeks and can be transported over long ranges. Changing weather patterns contribute to differences in concentrations in the air due to weather conditions including heat, cold, and wind factors.
PM2.5 is unhealthy
There is not any safe level of PM2.5 exposure. Even healthy, active people are in danger when exposed to high amounts. The effects of exposure include:
· Shortness of breath
· Eye, nose and throat irritation
· Excessive coughing and wheezing
· Diminished lung function and lung disease
· Diminished heart function, sometimes resulting in heart attack
· Asthmatic attacks
PM2.5 has been associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke, mortality, inflammatory and epigenetic effects, respiratory including lung cancer. The higher the concentration of PM2.5, the higher the health concern for people exposed. The lowest amount possible is strived for but levels between 15-40 micrograms per cubic metre is considered within satisfactory limits.
The U of T study demonstrated levels of PM2.5 as high as 95 micrograms per cubic metre, or 10 times the levels found outdoors. Levels ranged anywhere from 80.8 to 140 micrograms. These levels included high concentrations of metal inside the trains. PM2.5 levels ranging between 40 to 65 ug/m3 are categorized “unhealthy for sensitive groups” whereas PM2.5 levels over 100 are “unhealthy.”
“They’re afraid of the optics”
There were four work refusals from the result of this study from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 members demanding to wear masks after the release of the study. The Ministry of Labour was called in and they deemed that TTC is doing their due diligence to its employees and that the employees are not endangered. As such, masks are not required.
The TTC does not want the use of masks since it gives the appearance that the air is not safe to breathe. This may erode public confidence in using the TTC, especially for people who use it as their main mode of transportation.
“They’re afraid of the optics,” says Kevin Morton, Secretary-Treasurer of ATU Local 113.
ATU Local 113 has made their position clear. They are pushing the TTC to allow workers the choice to protect themselves by wearing masks underground. The union has called for an independent investigation and they will consult their own expert to determine the health and safety implications for their members. On May 23, 2017 ATU Local 113 met with the TTC and all parties agreed to the need for a new study.
Yet, Morton demands to know “why hasn’t the TTC conducted its own testing?”
Last week, the TTC board met and voted to send the air quality issue back to staff. The question remains is why it took this long to conduct a new study. The TTC conducted air quality studies in 1977, 1980 and 1995 That’s 22 years since the last one. The TTC has insisted that they had plans to conduct one later this year.
Who will pay for masks?
At this time, the TTC is not required to provide a N95 mask which is specially designed to filter out PM 2.5. Since the employer is not required to supply such a mask, they do not pay for it. If the employer has to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), they must pay for it. In unionized workplaces, employers and the union will often decide who pays for PPE in collective agreements.
According to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), the employer must assess its workplace for hazards, implement engineering controls, and must control or eliminate hazards before using PPE. The use of PPE is often a last resort after all other attempts to reduce or eliminate risks have been exhausted.
Currently, the TTC has been achieving this through the adoption of new equipment including subway tunnel vacuuming that has been criticized as not being enough to reduce PM2.5 levels. It further remains open to speculation whether the subway tunnel vacuuming currently used are sufficient to keep the air clean.
When PPE is used, the employer must inform employees why PPE is necessary and when it must be worn. They must train the employee on how to use and care for the PPE and how to recognize PPE deterioration and failure. The employer must enforce the requirement to wear the selected PPE in the workplace.
The implications are clear as these procedures would cost the employer time and funding to adopt. While it would be easy to grant ATU members the opportunity to use PPE, who will pay for it?
ATU Local 113 is clear in its demands to ensure the workers are protected. What is open to speculation is why the TTC does not want masks when the union demands that their members have the right to protect their long term health.