Alex Forrest, Canadian trustee for the International Association of Firefighters, right, says at a press conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 17, that the Yukon has “fallen behind” by not providing coverage to firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer. (Julien Gignac/Yukon News)

Firefighters call on WCB to provide more coverage to members suffering from cancers

Seven types of occupational cancers aren’t currently covered

The Yukon has “fallen behind” in not covering firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer linked to their work, according to national and local firefighters.

They’re calling on the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board to revise its legislation in order to cover an additional seven types of occupational cancers like prostate and multiple myeloma.

Yukon’s legislation was last overhauled in 2011. Since then, four Whitehorse firefighters have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But because the legislation is outdated, they weren’t able to obtain workers’ compensation, said Alex Forrest, Canadian trustee for the International Association of Firefighters, during a press conference on Dec. 17.

“What has happened since 2011 is this issue has literally blown up around the world and we now have more science to show us a very tragic issue that is now coming forward as firefighters are dying at even higher rates of occupational cancer,” he said, adding that job-related cancer is the number one killer of firefighters anywhere.

There are more women in the field now, too. Despite this, ovarian, breast and cervical cancers aren’t covered in the Yukon, either.

The territory currently provides coverage for 10 cancers in total, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The goal is to have all firefighters across the territory covered, including volunteers, said Barry Blisner, president of Whitehorse Firefighters Association. There are more than 300 firefighters in the Yukon.

Forrest said amendments, which could take effect in six months if everything goes according to plan, wouldn’t stop at providing coverage. They would advance preventative measures and could mean better gear.

Fires are becoming more toxic — as much as six times more, he said, and, while gear has improved, it still breathes, meaning that carcinogens can still make contact with skin. It’s more toxic now, Forrest continued, because there’s more plastic used in construction.

Forrest said carcinogens leach out of pores days after a fire is tended to.

“We’re gonna come into contact with lethal levels of benzene, formaldehyde, at least a dozen class one carcinogens. …” he said.

Asked whether possible amendments would apply retroactively, Forrest said they might.

Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have provided compensation to those diagnosed with occupational cancer before legislative changes were made, he said.

“We feel that this legislation should be passed, we feel it should be retroactive to 2011 because that’s when these studies have come out and that would allow for these four firefighters to be covered, as well.”

No one from the Yukon’s workers’ compensation board was immediately available for comment.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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