Crab asthma not taken seriously, say plant workers demonstrating at Workplace NL

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Workers from crab processing plants around Newfoundland were in St. John's Thursday, demonstrating outside the offices of Workplace NL to try to make their jobs safer. 

They say they are getting sick because of a condition called crab asthma, which is caused by exposure to dust, mist, fumes or aerosols that are generated when handling crab in processing plants.

When certain proteins from the crab become airborne, they can enter people's lungs and breathing tubes and cause asthma-like symptoms. 

Not being addressed

Doretta Strickland, a butcher at the Ocean Choice International plant in Triton, was one of those at Thursday's demonstration.

Strickland said crab asthma is something she has to deal with every day she works at the plant. She describes the symptoms as a tight chest, a bad cough and difficulty breathing.

"It's almost as if you have something around your throat, you just can't get enough air in to breathe," she said. "By the time the day is over, I don't have enough breath to get up over the stairs or get up to my vehicle."

She said it's not unusual to have to skip supper, because she just doesn't have enough energy to cook or eat.

Strickland wants to see greater oversight at the plants from Workplace NL, and for workers to have easier access to supplies to keep them from getting sick.

"We want Workplace NL to realize the dangers that we are working in," she said.

"We go in our lunch room and all you'll see is the ladies open up their lunch boxes and the first thing you'll see is inhalers and medication. That shouldn't be."

Not being heard

Strickland said safety issues for plant workers are supposed to be covered by the fish harvesting sector council, which she feels doesn't represent the processing workers well enough.

"We want a processing sector council just for processing. They don't understand what's happening in the processing plant," she said. "We feel that our issues are getting buried."

As well, Strickland would like to see Workplace NL cover the cost of medication and safety supplies such as better surgical masks to block out the crab particles. She said workers are often buying their own, but can only afford the cheap ones. 

She said Workplace NL does inspections, but plant owners often know ahead of time — and will ramp up safety measures for that day.

"How can they deal with anything if the company knows they're coming and they can get everything in order?" she said.

FFAW support

In an statement to media, the Fish Food and Allied Workers union said industry statistics show that 18 per cent of fish plant workers are affected by crab asthma, and a disproportionate number of those affected are women.

The union supports the worker's demands for a sector safety council, something it says has been sought for more than a decade, and says the provincial government does too.

"Alone in their opposition to the council is the membership of the Association of Seafood Producers who are ignoring their responsibility, as a major employer in rural communities, to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for their employees," the statement said.