Directors’ Blogs: Wind Wheel Mobile – an Asbestos Memorial

Written by: Joey Hartman, WELLS Director and Recording Secretary

This blog series is meant to cover general topics related to labour education. It is managed by our WELLS Directors

The BC Labour Heritage Centre (BCLHC) is nearing completion of a major public art installation to commemorate the thousands who have died due to asbestos exposure, and to educate all who see it about the continued threat.

Despite being banned in Canada, asbestos will be the leading cause of workplace related death for about 20 years – about 600 Canadians each year – or 40% of fatal workplace illnesses in North America. This prediction of 20 more years is because asbestos related diseases typically take 20 plus years to reveal themselves.

It’s insidious and unfair – a single exposure can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma or other deadly illness. Conversely, some people work their whole lives surrounded by airborne asbestos fibres and never get sick. It has to do with how the fibres are inhaled and have opportunity to penetrate the lung tissue, leading to scarring and diminished function over time.

The Labour Heritage Centre has led this project to recognize this very serious hazard to workers – and the significant advocacy taken up by unions and labour federations such as the Canadian Labour Congress and the BC Federation of Labour to push Governments to ban and regulate, and WCB to enforce and compensate.

Like so many hazards and carcinogens, the dangers of asbestos were denied or minimized for decades before Canada finally took legislative action with a ban in 2018. Scientists linked asbestos exposure to fatal disease as early as 1947. A 1972 lawsuit settlement finally forced industry officials to admit they knew the dangers, yet lobbyists persuaded the government to allow the mining, use and export of asbestos for decades longer.

The history is key to the BCLHC’s interest, but the objective is also forward-looking. Public awareness saves lives. This sculpture, and the poem “Magic and Lethal” that accompanies it, will help to ensure that the broader public is aware of their own vulnerability by describing the asbestos in schools, hospitals and office buildings, as well as oven mitts, brake-pads and even crayons. After all, asbestos was in fact considered “magic” as an effective insulator and fire retardant.

The artwork’s location couldn’t be better either. The mobile will sit at the foot of the “Line of Work” installation at the Vancouver Convention Centre. It will be on the waterfront path where millions of pedestrians, cyclists and cruise ship passengers are attracted every year.

It will be in place early 2022, with an unveiling date to be scheduled. For more information please go to the BC Labour Heritage Centre website and look for the “projects” tab.

Originally published December 13, 2021