Firefighters want cancer comp

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.

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 vivianb@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ken Anderson’s Sun and Moon model sculpture sits in the snow as he carves away at the real life sculpture behind Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse on Feb. 21, 2018. Yukon Rendezvous weekend kicks off today with a series of outdoor, virtual and staged events. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Rendezvous snowpad, live music and fireworks this weekend

A round-up of events taking place for the 2021 Rendezvous weekend

Whitehorse musher Hans Gatt crosses the 2021 Yukon Journey finish line in first place at approximately 10:35 a.m. on Feb. 26. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Whitehorse musher Hans Gatt crosses the 2021 Yukon Journey finish line in first place at approximately 10:35 a.m. on Feb. 26. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Hans Gatt wins inaugural 2021 Yukon Journey

The Yukon Journey, a 255-mile race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse, kicked off on Feb. 24

In a Feb. 17 statement, the City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology used for emergency response. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Three words could make all the difference in an emergency

City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology

Jesse Whelen, Blood Ties Four Directions harm reduction councillor, demonstrates how the organization tests for fentanyl in drugs in Whitehorse on May 12, 2020. The Yukon Coroner’s Service has confirmed three drug overdose deaths and one probable overdose death since mid-January. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three overdose deaths caused by “varying levels of cocaine and fentanyl,” coroner says

Heather Jones says overdoses continue to take lives at an “alarming rate”

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

The Yukon government and the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce have signed a letter of understanding under the territory’s new procurement policy. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
First Nation business registry planned under new procurement system

Letter of understanding signals plans to develop registry, boost procurement opportunities

US Consul General Brent Hardt during a wreath-laying ceremony at Peace Arch State Park in September 2020. Hardt said the two federal governments have been working closely on the issue of appropriate border measures during the pandemic. (John Kageorge photo)
New U.S. consul general says countries working closely on COVID-19 border

“I mean, the goal, obviously, is for both countries to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Most Read