Manitoba recognizes firefighting cancer risks

New law could set precedent for other occupations

Manitoba firefighters who develop certain cancers can now claim for compensation and their disease will be presumed work-related — no questions asked. The recent bill, passed unanimously, makes Manitoba the first in Canada to have legislation drawing a link to cancer and full-time firefighting, and it could set the bar for other provinces.

“This is not only an important day for firefighters in Manitoba, but for all of Canada,” said Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. “Other provincial governments should soon follow the initiative of (our) government in legislating cancer presumption for firefighters.”

When a fire fighter is diagnosed with one of five specific cancers — brain cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney or bladder cancer — after a number of years on the job, they will fall under Bill 5 of Manitoba’s Workers’ Compensation Act and be directly compensated. The board will assume the disease was caused by workplace hazards, such as smoke and toxic fumes.

This victory, however, did not come easy. Firefighting unions in Manitoba have been lobbying more than a decade for such legislation. In that time, about a dozen firefighters have died of cancer, five in the last four years.

“It’s been a long, hard battle to convince the government to recognize our concerns, (even with all) the studies and the literature out there that supported our argument,” said Martin Johnson, past-president of the Manitoba professional firefighters association.

What makes the legislation even more unique is that upon introduction last month, the Manitoba government also announced the bill applies retroactively to 1992. At least a dozen families can now get immediately compensated, said Johnson. Many of the fellows who have died from cancer were too young and did not have enough years of service to collect benefits from their pension or disability plans, he said.

This could set a very important precedent for any number of occupations in which there are known associations with various types of cancers, said Cathy Walker, health and safety director for Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

“There is the odd cancer that is consistently compensated for, but beyond that most claims are a real uphill battle for workers and often their dependents. Not only are they battling a fatal disease, but they have to try and fight for their rights under the Workers’ Compensation Board too,” she said. “Manitoba has set the standard that other provinces will have to meet.”

Too often, it takes years of research — and many work-related deaths — to gather enough evidence to classify certain workplace chemicals as human carcinogens. Unions like the CAW have continually reminded health policy makers and regulators about the harsh truth of occupational cancer.

According to the CAW, at least 60 different occupations have been identified as posing an increased cancer risk. Studies show that the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers along with its cars. The steel industry is producing lung cancer along with its metal products. Miners experience respiratory cancers many times higher than expected. Electrical workers are suffering increased rates of brain cancer. Dry cleaners have elevated rates of digestive tract cancers and women in the plastics and rubber industry are at greater risk for uterine cancer and possible breast cancer.

Even with these studies, it may still be difficult to achieve a ripple effect, said Walker. But the issue should not be swept under the table.

“The Canadian public needs to ask why. Why should a union have to lobby so hard for justice for those people who have become sick and often fatally ill in response to their work? It should be a part of the Workers’ Compensation Board to do this in a systematic way and of their own accord,” Walker said.

It’s likely all the publicity the Manitoba bill received has turned some employer’s heads. Anytime there is more compensation awarded for occupational disease, there is more interest in prevention, said Walker.

And there are many places to get information. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has produced a list of substances and chemicals used in many different work environments that are associated with cancer.

The Canadian Labour Congress has launched a “Prevent Cancer” campaign in which it urges both employers and employees to be more proactive in determining cancer hazards in the workplace and making changes so exposure is either limited or eliminated. For example, CLC offers three alternatives to using carcinogens at work. There is replacement, where a less harmful chemical is used but the process, tools and working methods stay the same; process modification, where tools or work methods must also be changed because of the chemical replacement; and process substitution, where the entire process, tools or work methods are modified.

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