Yukon’s firefighters will have an easier time receiving workplace compensation for certain types of cancer, starting in July, thanks to a new law MLAs passed yesterday.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Jim Regimbal, president of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years and years.”
The whirlwind introduction and passage of the government-sponsored bill was a rare show of co-operation between all three of Yukon’s political parties.
It’s also a sign that this sitting, which wraps up Monday, will likely be the last before a territorial election is triggered by the autumn.
Since 2009, Yukon’s firefighters have called for legislation to acknowledge that they are routinely exposed to airborne cancer-causing chemicals while dousing burning homes. The new law presumes 10 types of cancer to be work-related for firefighters.
This spares firefighters from going through the normal adjudication process with the Yukon Workers’ Compensation, Health and Safety Board.
This presumptive cancer coverage extends to all 277 firefighters in the territory, whether they’re full time, part time or volunteer.
A Yukon firefighter has never made a cancer compensation claim. But Clive Sparks, Whitehorse’s fire chief, has seen several firefighters succumb to the disease.
“Had this legislation been in place at that time, it probably would have covered them for the cancer they had,” he said.
To be eligible for automatic compensation, firefighters will need to serve for a certain length of time, ranging from five years of full-time service for leukemia to 25 years for esophageal cancer.
These eligibility periods will be set by board order, to allow for quick changes to keep up with new medical research, said Valerie Royle, president and CEO of the compensation board.
Eligibility periods are still being set for four cancers. Once set, compensation will be retroactive to July.
The board must also still decide how to calculate the length of service of part-time or volunteer firefighters. This will be set within three years, but “we don’t think it will take that long,” said Royle.
Retroactive claims are a hassle for compensation board staff, she said, so it’s in their interest to settle these unknowns soon.
The board is also beefing-up safety regulations for firefighters. These new rules, expected to be approved by July, would include more stringent screenings to detect cancer in the early stages, “rather than wait for it to turn into a full-blown cancer that can’t be treated,” said Kurt Dieckmann, the compensation board’s director of health and safety.
The new law also gives firefighters automatic compensation for heart attacks that occur within 24 hours of a fire or other emergency calls. This presumptive coverage extends to Yukon’s 110 wildland firefighters.
Firefighting safety has come a long way since Sparks first joined the Porter Creek fire team in 1969.
Then, the only requirement was that he find a jacket and pair of boots that fit, he said. Now, firefighters spend 200 hours training before they’re given a pager.
Then, firefighters would be yelled at for strapping on an oxygen mask, “because someone would have to be paid to refill the bottle.” Now, they’re yelled at if they don’t wear one.
But as safety standards have risen, so have the threats posed by toxic substances. Compared to several decades ago, today’s homes contain far more plastic, foam and other materials that give off cancer-causing chemicals when burned.
Respirators help protect firefighters, but these chemicals are also absorbed through the skin, and firefighting suits are breathable to help control the body temperatures of responders.
Regimbal, who served as a military firefighter for 15 years, said there’s a reason why he can dip into his registered retirement savings plan at age 55, a full decade earlier than most people.
“We usually don’t last that long,” he said.
The new law, which amends the Workers’ Compensation Act, provides presumptive coverage for leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple melanoma and cancers of the bladder, brain, colon, esophagus, skin, lung, prostate, breast, testicles and uterus. The law also makes room for other forms of cancer to be added later.
The Yukon is the eighth jurisdiction in Canada to adopt a presumptive cancer law.
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