The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in favour of three Mission Memorial Hospital workers who claimed they developed breast cancer as a result of conditions in their laboratory workplace.
Katrina Hammer, Patricia Schmidt and Anne MacFarlane were denied compensation by the Workers’ Compensation Board after being diagnosed with the disease between 2002 and 2005, when medical experts testified that no causal link existed between their workplace and their illness. The decision touched off a case that snaked through the WorkSafeBC appeal process and the B.C. courts and has just now been resolved by the top court.
An investigation of the lab initiated in 2003 by Fraser Health failed to uncover a specific cause, but the cluster of cancers was roughly eight times the expected rate and workers were known to have worked with carcinogens, according to the women’s lawyer, Tonie Beharrell. In all, seven lab technicians were diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The report didn’t say there was no workplace causation, it just said that they couldn’t determine a cause to a scientific certainty,” she said.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruled this week that the evidence was sufficient to support the women’s claims, even in the absence of a smoking gun.
The decision is unlikely to lead to substantive changes to working conditions in medical labs, but it does serve to establish the standard of evidence required to establish causation in workplace injury cases.
“The evidence we presented for causation was firstly the statistically significant rate of cancer, but also the known historical usage of carcinogens in the lab,” she said. “There was a problem with precise evidence, because historically records were not up to today’s standards. Everyone knew these substances had been used, but there was no hard evidence about the level and frequency of exposure.”
But in the court’s ruling, Justice Russell Brown noted that the Workers Compensation Act sets a lower burden of evidence than the civil standard required by the courts and that the decision must “where the evidence leads to a draw” favour the worker.
“Hopefully workers who have been hesitant to argue causation will be encouraged to pursue their claims, knowing that they don’t actually need a medical opinion that says ‘your work caused your cancer,’” Beharrell said. “They can rely on a range of evidence to make those claims.”
Hammer, Schmidt and MacFarlane received compensation for their illnesses after the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal overturned the Board’s original rejection of their claims.
“All three women are in good health now and that is best outcome for this whole story,” said Beharrell.
After the original investigation of the Mission Memorial lab, Fraser Health launched an expanded inquiry at the hospital in conjunction with the BC Cancer Agency and hospital employees’ unions, according to Fraser Health spokeswoman Tasleem Juma.
No further cancer clusters were detected and none have been found in the interceding 14 years, she said.