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Living life with crab asthma


Donna Beck tells her story about living life with crab asthma

My history of working with Grand Atlantic Seafoods and Ocean Choice International from 1997 to 2008.

I began working for Grand Atlantic Seafoods and Ocean Choice International in 1997 and finished in 2008. I was a very healthy individual when I went to work in the crab plant, but over time I found myself getting sick more and more often. I began feeling very short of breath, very tired and I couldn’t figure out what was causing my breathing problems. At the time I wrote it off as a result of being around heavy mist in the plant.

But those conditions continued with me, and didn’t improve when I began using puffers. In fact, it just kept getting worse. I took more trips to hospital because of lung infections, congestion, shortness of breath, wheezing and tightness in my chest. Many times I had to leave work to go to the emergency department. More puffers, more antibiotics, more steroids. Each time I had to take time off work to try to recover. Each day after work I had to use my nebulizer. It just kept getting worse.

I was at my doctor’s so often with the same problems time after time, yet they couldn’t pinpoint the cause of my illness.  At that time, no one had heard of crab asthma – yet now we know this asthma is caused by exposure from working in the crab plants with no proper ventilation or breathing protection.

For 10 years I worked like this without realizing that I was allergic to the crab proteins released during processing. But I did know something was terribly wrong because my health was deteriorating each year. I found it so hard to get up and down the stairs to the lunch room that I spent most of my breaks outside so I didn’t have to use the stairs.

Working conditions at the plant were not top notch by any means. Ammonia leaks were not taken seriously by management. The steam was so thick in the plant that you couldn’t see the person across the line from you. This thick, hot steam filled with the allergens is what we breathed in, day in and day out. 

At one point, a group from Memorial University came to do testing on plant workers to see if we were allergic to crab. I took part in that test, and low and behold I was allergic to raw and cooked crab. It was then that I figured out I had to do something about this and the work I was doing was damaging my health more each day.

I was referred to a specialist who works for WHSCC. This doctor diagnosed me with crab asthma and COPD, and as a result of working in the crab plant I had developed several other allergies. I was advised to quit working at the plant immediately or I would be killing myself.

From here on out, things changed for me. I was out of work, no longer allowed in the crab plant because of the effects it had on my health. But I still had bills to pay and now had lasting health effects from my time at the plant. I was left with no other options than file for WHSCC and CPP disability.

I was quickly approved for my Disability CPP, but getting compensation from WHSCC was a battle. Thanks to my union who fought long and hard on my behalf I finally received compensation. But since WHSCC payments are based on weekly earnings, my payments were reduced as a result of missing work due to my respiratory issues. I receive a mere $340 bi-weekly from WHSCC, and combined with CPP Disability I am still below poverty level. 

I am an injured worker, but there is no protection for me. Our government must do better to protect people like me who are chronically injured in the workplace. Processing plants must take more accountability for the conditions we work in.

I can no longer do everyday things like walking, lifting, cleaning – small levels of exertion are unmanageable with my condition. Simple things for you could be impossible for me due to my shortness of breath. I am on oxygen 24/7 with only 25% of my lung capacity functioning. My condition continues to deteriorate. I know have to decide if I will move to Ontario to await a double lung transplant – all because of the effect the plant had on my health.

If I only knew then what I know now about the effects crab can have on lungs, things would look a lot different for me.