TTC operators were barred from wearing medical masks while on the job a day after a damning report revealed poor air quality levels in Toronto’s subway system, the largest TTC workers’ union said.

According to the largest TTC workers’ union, when three employees showed up for their shifts with masks due to fear about the pollution’s long-term health impacts, they were sent home. 

Around 100 micrograms of air pollutants on TTC subway platforms and tunnels are similar to that of smog-prone Beijing on an average day, a study published in the journal of Environment Science & Technology on Tuesday found. 

Conducted in 2010 to 2011, it found pollutants on trains and platforms in the city were up to 10 times higher than outside air, and around three times higher than levels in Canada’s three other major rapid transit systems – Montreal’s Metro and Vancouver’s SkyTrain. 

'I'm always stuffed up,' TTC worker says

Todd, a TTC operator for more than 20 years, who did not provide his last name, said he is troubled by the study.

“I’m always stuffed up … clogged nose, it’s horrible down there,” he told CTV Toronto on Wednesday. 

He decided to wear a medical mask to work yesterday in an effort to reduce his exposure to pollution. 

But when he arrived for his shift with the mask, along with two other TTC employees, the trio was sent home for what the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 calls “refusing to work.”

“Everyone in Beijing wears masks, so why can’t we wear masks?” Kevin Morton, secretary-treasurer of Local 113, which represents around 11,000 active TTC workers, asked. 

“And if customers can wear a mask, why can’t an operator on a subway line wear one?”

Survey highlights health concerns, union says

The union slammed the TTC for the results of the study Tuesday, saying it “raises serious health concerns” for its members and highlights the question of “What did the TTC know? And, when did the TTC know it?” 

Morton added that equating a medical mask to refusing work is a slippery slope for the TTC. 

“He’s going back down to the division at Danforth and stating that I want to work with a mask. What are you doing to do? Are you doing to let me work? If not you’re not going to let me work, are you going to give me alternate work? If you’re not going to give me alternate work, are you going to fire me?” he said.

'Masks are unnecessary'

But the TTC retained in a statement there’s no need for subway operators to wear masks.

“Masks are unnecessary and, therefore, not permitted,” the statement reads. “If a worker refuses work, the Ministry of Labour is called and that has happened.”

Earlier, a memo set to employees by the TTC’s chief safety officer, downplayed the study’s findings.

“This study was not intended to assess impacts on overall health, rather it looked at levels of certain commonly occurring particulates and pollution,” the memo stated. “This research was done in 2010 and 2011 at a time we had already started taking steps that will improve air quality on the trains and reduce certain pollutants in the underground stations.”

That includes the introduction of Toronto Rocket trains on Line 1 – the Yonge-University-Spadina line – which have never HVAC systems. Those trains began running in 2011. 

“The TTC remains a safe system for our customers and employees, and plays a vitally important role in reducing pollution caused by vehicle emissions,” the TTC said in a statement on Tuesday. 

According to TTC, more improvements will be made this summer.

But TTC operators like Todd say the current risk still makes them feel uneasy and taking small measures – like wearing medical masks – is a temporary preventative measure until air quality is improved. 

“If I knew better, I would have liked to have a lung test from when I first started and again when I retire, just to see where I fit,” he said.