When firefighters run into burning buildings, their hearts pound almost uncontrollably and there are times when some can't stand the heat, suffering heart attacks at the scene or shortly afterwards, said firefighter Mike Rispin.
Rispin, a 22-year firefighting veteran from Vancouver Island, said he seen his colleagues collapse from heat exhaustion, and he knows of at least one Nanaimo firefighter who suffered a heart attack and died fighting a fire.
Rispin, Vancouver Island vice-president of the British Columbia Professional Firefighters Association, couldn't hold back his tears Monday as the Liberal government announced it was tabling legislation to amend the Workers' Compensation Act to restore heart disease — including heart attacks — as a presumed job-related disease in firefighters to be recognized by WorkSafeBC.
"I'm very emotional, very much so," he said.
The government's move means firefighters who suffer heart disease will be able to file workers' compensation claims without having to individually prove their heart condition is job related. Heart disease would join at least 10 other diseases, including leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, bladder and brain cancer that WorkSafeBC presumes are job-related for firefighters.
"It's the stresses we face when we enter these buildings and work extremely hard under extreme conditions of heat," said Rispin.
Over the past 15 years, several of Rispin's friends and colleagues — including one who has since died — have tangled with WorkSafeBC over compensation for heart disease.
'We know that you work in a hazardous workplace. You should not have to go through the anxiety of having to prove you've been impacted with a heart injury or heart attack.' - B.C. jobs Minister Shirley Bond
"I know there's been quite a correlation between the heat stressors and our heart disease," said Rispin, tears dribbling down his cheeks. "With wearing all our turnout gear, we are unable to dissipate that heat. It stays within our gear and keeps us very warm."
Association president Michael Hurley said too many firefighters with heart conditions over the past 15 years gave up on their compensation claims because of the onerous process of proving their condition was job-related.
"Many said, 'it was just too much stress and I couldn't handle it at the time,"' said Hurley. "This has been a long uphill battle for us to have this legislation reinstated."
Heart diseases re-instated after 15 years
WorkSafeBC removed heart diseases as a presumptive disease for firefighters 15 years ago.
Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said the amended the Workers Compensation Act would make B.C. the only jurisdiction in Canada that has heart disease for firefighters back on the list of presumptive diseases recognized in workers' compensation claims.
She said forest firefighters will also be able to make insurance claims if they suffer from heart disease.
"We know that the risks you face every single day include carbon monoxide, thousands of chemicals, airborne particulates, noise and physical stress," said Bond. "We know that you work in a hazardous workplace. You should not have to go through the anxiety of having to prove you've been impacted with a heart injury or heart attack."
"One of the things that has been ingrained in my memory is in circumstances where other people run out, you run in," Bond said. "That makes an enormous difference."