When breathing makes you sick

Is there is a connection between the presence of mould in the air and occupational disease? A recent decision handed down by the Administrative Labour Tribunal suggests this is the case and opens the doors to long-awaited recognition of the issue.

Before being forced to take an extended sick leave in December 2013, Luc Gélinas, a guidance counsellor, had suffered from numerous respiratory problems. Difficulty breathing, secretions, irritated throat, laryngitis, a sensation of tightness and burning in the lungs, coughing and shortness of breath: these were some of the symptoms he had experienced, despite being very fit and healthy.

Over the years, Luc Gélinas received multiple diagnoses: sinus and bronchial infections, sinusitis and pneumonia, rhinitis and rhinosinusitis. Surprisingly, the symptoms would subside whenever he was off work for a few days, for instance, during vacation. They would then recur with a vengeance as soon as he returned to work. His doctor finally ordered him to be withdrawn from his workplace in December 2013, and deemed that the symptoms were caused by the occupational environment. A claim for compensation was submitted to the CNESST[1]. Away from his workplace, the Centre Lemoyne-D’Iberville de Longueuil, Luc Gélinas noticed that his symptoms completely disappeared.

Rejection of the claim for compensation

The CNESST rejected the claim. Following the rejection, the Commission scolaire Marie-Victorin in turn refuted any link between the counsellor’s respiratory illness and the presence of mould in his workplace.

A five-year legal battle

Luc Gélinas then contested the CNESST decision. Valérie Dubé and Maude Lyonnais-Bourque, union advisors of the Fédération des professionnelles et professionnels de l’éducation (FPPE-CSQ), argued his case before the Administrative Labour Tribunal. Jacques Landry, president of the Syndicat des professionnelles et professionnels de la Montérégie (SPPM-CSQ), supported Luc Gélinas throughout the process.

“This battle became a matter of principle for our union and our federation. We even had to submit access to information requests to get reports about work conducted at the Centre. These reports clearly indicated the presence of a significant quantity of water coming from the water table as well as mould in both the crawl space and the basement of the Centre. We also had to undertake legal proceedings to win the right to have the premises inspected by an independent inspector,” Jacques Landry explains.

A decisive victory

Luc Gélinas finally won his case after a five-year legal battle. Justice Marlène Auclair of the Administrative Labour Tribunal concluded that the presence of mould in the workplace contributed in a “significant” way to the non-allergenic rhinitis that he had suffered. It was determined that Luc Gélinas did sustain an occupational injury. As a result, he was entitled to the benefits provided for under Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases.

A significant precedent

“This is an important victory for the FPPE-CSQ and for all persons who suffer from poor air quality in their workplace, because the connection between the presence of mould and occupational disease is extremely difficult to legally establish,” explained Maude Lyonnais-Bourque, an attorney with the Federation.

“We hope this decision will create a precedent and enable other education workers to receive adequate compensation. This is a crucial public health issue for staff, but also for students, who are obligated by law to attend these institutions on a daily basis,” concluded Johanne Pomerleau, president of the FPPE-CSQ.

Have you experienced symptoms similar to those of Luc Gélinas? Visit the dossier section of the lacsq.org/sst website to learn more about indoor air quality, mould and other contaminants, as well as the steps you need to take. Above all, talk to your union about it!


[1] Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST).


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