Changes to Workers Compensation Act help firefighters

Firefighters who get breast cancer, prostate cancer or multiple myeloma will have an easier time getting compensation from WorkSafe B.C., after those diseases were added to the list of presumptive occupational diseases.

The B.C. government made amendments to the Workers Compensation Act to reflect that the hazards of firefighting can increase the risks of contracting those three cancers.

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Presumptive disability coverage means if a professional or volunteer firefighter develops one of the listed cancers, it is presumed to have been caused by their employment. This allows firefighters to claim workers’ compensation benefits without having to provide evidence that the cancer is work-related.

In 2005, the provincial government recognized the following cancers as work-related diseases for firefighters: brain cancer, bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, ureter cancer, testicular cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia.

In 2014, heart disease and heart injury were restored as occupational diseases.

The announcement was top of mind for firefighters from across B.C. who gathered at the legislature on Monday to honour 14 firefighters who have died in the line of duty.

Longtime Nanaimo firefighter Don Baxter, who died on Aug. 16, 2016, of congestive heart failure at age 76, was remembered by his wife, Norma, and son Don Baxter Jr. Baxter loved to hunt, fish, travel and was a passionate family man who always looked forward to spending time with his four grandkids and three great-grandkids.

“It’s amazing to see all the support, words can’t describe it,” said Don Baxter Jr., who is also a member of Nanaimo Fire Service.

Baxter did not receive compensation for work-related illness but Mike Rispin, president of the Nanaimo Professional Firefighters local 905, said many other Nanaimo firefighters have. Rispin said the expanded coverage means that when firefighters are battling cancer or heart disease, they don’t also have to battle WorkSafe for compensation.

“They're covered right away and can get treatment sooner,” Rispin said. “It’s support for them after so many years of giving to the community.”

Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association, said firefighters are exposed to toxic fumes that significantly increase their risk of cancer compared with the general public.

The association had been lobbying for breast cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma to be recognized as diseases related to firefighting.

“The addition of these presumptive coverages will benefit firefighters in every region of British Columbia, including the families who are often the ones left to navigate the claims process with WorkSafe B.C.,” he said in a statement.

Victoria oncologist Dr. Kenneth Kunz said several studies have shown that breast cancer is the most common cancer in female firefighters, and prostate cancer is statistically elevated in male firefighters. Multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, has also been shown to be a higher risk for firefighters, he said. He said the average healthy adult has a 39 per cent chance of contracting cancer and a firefighter has a 55 per cent chance of contracting cancer.

Kunz said while it's a positive step that more cancers were added to the list, all cancers affecting firefighters should be considered job-related unless it can be proven otherwise. He also said the requirement that a firefighter must have a minimum number of years of service, a number which varies depending on the type of cancer, to qualify for compensation is poorly thought out and arbitrary.

Kunz said he spoke with a 24-year veteran firefighter in the Courtenay area who couldn't get WorkSafe compensation for esophageal cancer because he was told one must work for the fire service for 25 years to qualify. Last year, the man died of lymphoma.

“There are many cases of firefighters who get cancer and they simply can’t get help,” Kunz said.

Firefighters should be screened at least 10 years earlier than the general public because of the recognized increased risks of cancer, Kunz said.

In a statement, Shirley Bond, minister of jobs, tourism and skills training, and labour, acknowledged that “firefighters are exposed to very real hazards and their work saves lives and keeps our communities safe. That is why we’re enabling regulatory changes to support three new cancer presumptions for them. This change is a meaningful step that acknowledges the tremendous risks firefighters take any time they are called to duty.”

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