INHALING DEATH Worker’s death proves all work is precarious

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JUSTIN MATHEWS IS DEAD. His job killed him. It happens a lot. Mostly because we just don’t care enough about worker safety. It was that kind of carelessness that killed Justin.

Justin was doing his job inside the Rossdale fire station in Edmonton on October 2 2017. He was checking air quality to make sure it was safe for the workers there to breathe. He didn’t know the air wasn’t safe for him to breathe. That’s what killed him.

The air was full of dust contaminated with walnut particles used in sandblasting in the building. Nobody told Justin.

Justin had a life-threatening allergy to nuts. When he breathed in the walnut contaminated dust he started gasping for air. He rushed outside.

“He went to the car outside and he couldn’t breathe. He was leaning on the car and trying to catch [his] breath,” his mother said.

Then he collapsed and fell to the ground. Edmonton fire crews responded first, followed by an ambulance. They did all they could to help Justin. But, they did not have EpiPens used to counteract anaphylactic shock. Justin didn’t carry one either. He died.

“First responders need to have EpiPens with them because 10 minutes when you’re in anaphylactic shock is too long. You can’t wait that long. Your body will start shutting down and it will result in brain death,” said Justin’s sister Shari Reklow.

Justin’s parents said he wouldn’t expect to have a reaction unless he was eating. He was very cautious when ordering food, they said.

Nuts not just a danger in foods
Shari Reklow wants accountability for her brother’s death. She believes the use of walnut-based products should be regulated in a similar way to food and warnings issued.

“There is a flaw for sure, and I’m really sorry my brother had to pay the price. We’re all paying the price now,” Reklow said.

“Nut allergies are taken very seriously in foods. How many times do you see ‘may contain nuts’, or ‘come into contact with nuts’ on a food label?”

“It’s not just in food. Nuts are being used in commercial and industrial applications and that needs to be regulated. Right now, as far as I can see within WHMIS, it’s not a controlled or regulated substance.”

“You can find walnut shells in tires, in sandblasting,” said Reklow. “It’s in places you don’t even think to look for it.

“If you’re not made properly aware, how can you protect yourself? How can you protect your family? There should also a warning on jobs sites for anyone who may come close to an area where the product may be used.”

It’s becoming more common for nut-based ingredients to be found in non-edible products such as sandblasting material, non-slip paint, wood stains, flooring, and particle board, says allergy safety expert Elizabeth Goldenberg.

“Most people with allergies would not be aware that they could come into contact with those substances in those sorts of products. I would definitely call it a hidden danger.”

Desire to protect some, kills another
It was a desire to protect workers from the dangers of breathing in the silica used in sandblasting that led to Justin’s death.

Labour Alberta spokesman Trent Bancarz said walnut shell products are being used more often on worksites in Alberta as companies have been encouraged to reduce using silica-based products.

“Industry is looking at alternatives to sand or other silica based products because there are very well known hazards with using silica.”

It was a deadly irony that killed Justin Mathews. It also shows, one more time, how  much more needs to be done to make sure no worker has to die for a living.


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.