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Former SaskEnergy worker believes cancer is linked to gas exposure on the job

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Brian Hodgkinson always knew there was benzene in natural gas — after all, he spent 40 years working with it for SaskPower, then SaskEnergy.

Hodgkinson, 68, retired from SaskEnergy in 2014. A year later he discovered he had leukemia — blood cancer. Now, Hodgkinson and his wife — also a former SaskEnergy employee — are suing both companies because they think his exposure to gas at work led to his leukemia.

He never thought about the benzene much until his wife approached him six months ago.

“She asked me one day, ‘Is there benzene in natural gas?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Well, she says, ‘it’s linked to cancers.’”

His wife Josie started researching the links between benzene exposure and the risk of developing leukemia, she even convinced one research group to share their raw data with her so they could bring it to an occupational medicine specialist in Saskatoon.

The doctor was convinced. In November, he wrote a letter to their family doctor supporting their claim that his leukemia was work-related.

“As I noted in my first letter dated Sept. 27th, benzene is a known (Group 1) carcinogen causing leukemia,” said Dr. Niels Koehncke of the Occupational Medicine Clinic at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I realize we don’t have accurate exposure information for Mr. Hodgkinson specifically during his time with SaskEnergy. Nevertheless, I feel these potential exposure levels, particularly over the course of a working lifetime, represent a risk of developing leukemia and support the work-relatedness of his leukemia.”

Hodgkinson now looks back on his 30 years of fieldwork with new eyes. He says workers were constantly exposed to gas and weren’t given appropriate protective gear.

He says workers were required to perform “sniff tests” to measure odorant in the gas.

“It’s where you go up to the gas meter in the house and you, you sniff natural gas and compare it to a machine.”

When called to the site of a ruptured gas line, he says they worked unprotected, he claims.

“No respirator, no nothing. Just a pair of goggles on.”

In a statement of defence filed in November, both provincial Crown corporations deny any wrongdoing.

They deny Hodgkinson suffered any loss or injury and say — even if he did — it was caused by his own negligence, claiming he failed to follow safety procedures.

Hodgkinson says the procedures weren’t clear.

Workers were trained to use respirators, and a few were available in the office, but staff were never directed when to use them, Hodgkinson said.

Safety consultant Brooks Paisley from Daxx Safety Group in Regina says most companies working around hazardous gases have very clear rules about respirators.

“There are safe work procedures, safe work practices, company rules that are in place as far as PPE, having an assigned respirator that is, you know, tight fitting, and assigned to the end user,” Paisley told CTV News.

Hodgkinson says he knows two other field workers from his Saskatoon office who also have blood cancer, and he can think of many who died in their 50s.

Now, dying at home from leukemia and stomach cancer, he said he feels cheated.

“It seems to me like they feel that the field workers are disposable.”

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