Lee Loftus Retires - A health and safety champion

Friday, January 26, 2018

Lee Loftus has stepped down as president of the B.C.Building Trades after a long career as one of Canada’s leading occupational health and safety experts in the construction industry.

By Richard Gilbert

Lee Loftus has stepped down as president of the B.C.Building Trades after a long career as one of Canada’s leading occupational health and safety experts in the construction industry.

“Workplace health and safety has been a major driver that has really motivated me throughout my career to be as aggressive as possible in the unionized sector,” said Loftus. “The injustice I have seen in the workplace, including injuries, exploitation and death, have certainly motivated me to represent workers.”

As a business manager, Loftus represents unionized insulators who have a trades qualification and completed a four-year apprenticeship in HVAC systems and building insulation methods.

More importantly, Loftus will leave behind a legacy as an uncompromising leader in the struggle for a national asbestos ban and better regulation.

In response to lobbying by Loftus and other union activists,the federal government promised in December 2016 to impl-ment a comprehensive ban on asbestos by 2018. This involves the creation of new regulations to prohibit the manufacture, use, import, and export of asbestos.

A new federal initiative launched in July 2017 supports the ban by lowering the acceptable level of workplace exposure to airborne chrysotile asbestos to as close to zero as possible.

The results of Loftus’ lobbying efforts can also be seen at the provincial and municipal level. A resolution was passed at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention this September that said the provincial government should “requiremandatory licensing, certification, and enforceable compliance in safely handling asbestos and other hazardous material for all demolition, renovation, and environmental remediation contractors.”

Loftus is also calling on municipalities to not issue demolition permits until hazardous waste assessments are done to identify asbestos and properly dispose of it.

In a related campaign, Loftus is calling on the provincial government to prosecute corporate executives who are responsible for causing workplace death or injury in cases of negligence.

WorkSafeBC reports that 605 B.C. workers died from asbestos-related diseases between 2007 and 2016.

Loftus’ serious interest in occupational health and safety began in the 1970s, as an apprentice at the Burrard Dry Dock Company in North Vancouver.

“The journeyperson exposure provided me with some great opportunities, but the other side of that was in the shipyards, the injury rates, the severity rates, and the frequency rates were off the charts,” he said. “Everyone was being exposed to chemicals, asbestos, and lead paint, without any exceptions. The shipyards were a little bit backward when it came to workplace practices.”

These safety problems motivated Loftus to seek the safety director position for the insulators, which he secured after receiving his journeyman paper in the early 1980s. Local 118 provided Loftus with the education in occupational health andsafety and made him the director for the entire province.

He worked as an insulator during the day, and studied theissues, wrote submissions, and went to school in the eveningsand weekends. He also took safety inspector classes with the Workers’ Compensation Board.

As a result, he was promoted to safety inspector for the whole shipyard, which represented 13 trade unions and 1,800 workers. His main responsibilities included coordinating education and training, undertaking workplace inspections, and reviewing practices and processes.

During the 10 years Loftus worked at Burrard Drydock, the facility experienced a boom in ship building and ship repair. The shipyard was awarded major contracts by the B.C. government to build ferries and Gulf Oil Canada to build an icebreaker.

During this period, Loftus also worked on commercial, industrial, and institutional projects. When the work slowed down in the shipyards, Loftus found himself back in the insulation department. He was eventually laid off in 1989 with most of the workforce.

After leaving the shipyard, Loftus was elected to the position of business agent for Local 118, where he specialized in collective bargaining for the marine sector. Loftus was also a key negotiator with the BC Building Trades.

Loftus became the business manager of the local union in 1994 and remained at the negotiating table for the B.C. Building Trades until 1999. His long career with the B.C. Insulators began in August 1974, when he was dispatched to Taylor, B.C. to work at the Pacific Petroleum oil refinery.

“As the first apprentice on the job, my primary job when I got there was to strip all the asbestos off the existing lines that were going to tie in,” said Loftus, who was 17-years-old and not given any protective gear or clothing to perform this task.

Currently Loftus suffers from asbestosis caused by exposure to asbestos during the 1970s and 1980s.

“I am not going to stop championing this today or tomorrow,” he said. “I will be championing this cause and this issue probably to my very last breath.”

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