Dozens of firefighters across the country are dying of work-related cancer that isn’t covered by workers’ compensation.
It’s a statistic that leaves many families distraught, said Alex Forrest, of the International Association of Firefighters.
Forrest visited Whitehorse last week to speak about presumptive cancer laws he’s helped introduce in seven provinces in Canada.
Such laws guarantee that a firefighter who contracts work-related cancer will receive workers’ compensation benefits.
It has been proven in the scientific and medical community that firefighters are at a much higher risk of contracting cancer than the general population because of the harmful chemicals they’re exposed to on the job.
Currently, a Yukon firefighter needs to prove to the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board that their cancer is a result of their work as a firefighter. And pinpointing exactly which fire you received cancer from is next to impossible, said Forrest.
“Presumptive cancer reverses that,” said Brian Fedoriak, president of the Whitehorse Firefighters’ Association.
“Firefighters don’t need to battle (with the health and safety board) making life easier on them,” he said.
Seven provinces in Canada, including BC, have presumptive cancer legislation. And Alaska recently introduced similar legislation.
“The Yukon is surrounded by jurisdictions that have this legislation. It seems like the next logical step for the territory to adopt it,” said Forrest.
In 2002, Manitoba became the first province to adopt the legislation as a result of Forrest’s dedicated lobbying efforts. Since that time, he has worked to introduce legislation for firefighters across the country.
In the last decade, firefighters have been put at a greater risk of getting cancer, said Forrest.
“Safety precautions have increased about five times over the last few years but toxicity levels have probably increased tenfold in the same amount of time,” he said. This is because homes are being built with plastic and glue-based products rather than wood.
“One breath of a common house fire is enough to knock you out,” said Forrest.
“It’s a toxic soup of cancerous agents. If it doesn’t get you on the scene, it will over time.”
Benzene, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde are some of the more toxic chemicals firefighters are being exposed to.
It is the absorption of these chemicals into the firefighters’ skin, rather than what they breathe in, that is most harmful. Firefighters can have black chemicals oozing out of their skin days after they have fought a fire, said Forrest.
“This legislation is something that we’ve been looking at introducing for a number of years,” said Don McKnight, platoon chief for the Whitehorse Fire Department and chair of its health and safety committee.
Even prior to hearing about the legislation, McKnight said firefighters here knew their lives were at a greater risk.
“It was just a matter of connecting the dots. We already had the medical and scientific studies to confirm (what we already suspected),” he said.
The Whitehorse Fire Department currently employs 23 full-time firefighters.
“It’s likely that two or three of these members will be affected by (cancer),” said Fedoriak.
Fedoriak isn’t aware of any claims that have recently come forward to workers’ comp related to cancer. But it’s only a matter of time, he said.
The fire department will be seeking benefits for volunteer fire fighters, as well.
Forrest is confident that once legislation is introduced, the territorial government will pass it.
“Everyone is very supportive of the legislation,” he said.
“No matter what a politician’s political leaning has been, not one person has voted against it (in the seven provinces that have adopted presumptive cancer).”
Last week Forrest met with directors from workers’ comp.
“At first (when we were approached by Forrest) we were surprised because we’ve never had any of these claims come before us,” said board president Valerie Royle.
“If there is to be legislation, however, we would also want there to be stronger prevention legislation.”
The board won’t move forward on the issue unless the presumptive cancer and prevention legislation “go hand in hand,” said Royle.
“If we don’t have both we’d prefer not to have the legislation … but we know it’s a trend across country and we’d like to be the first to introduce it with prevention.”
Forrest is positive, however, the board will work with the firefighters to get presumptive cancer coverage.
“I have no doubt they’ll work with us to get this done,” he said. “We’re creating a system to make the workplace safer.”
Forrest fears that the legislation will be passed only after cancer has claimed the life of another firefighter in Whitehorse.
“Politics move slowly,” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating that firefighters have died (before legislation was put in place). We’re trying to do it before that happens.”
Directors of the board were unable to be reached before press time due to holidays.
Contact Vivian Belik at firstname.lastname@example.org