Firefighters who get sick because of their work will receive expanded worker's compensation coverage under new provincial legislation introduced Tuesday.
Several cancers are covered the Workers Compensation Act under "presumptive" legislation that recognizes certain types of cancer are connected to firefighting. Manitoba was one of the first provinces to offer such coverage, and it was followed by almost every other province.
- FROM FEB. 20, 2003: Manitoba leading the way to firefighter compensation
Now, the province is taking the legislation further, introducing an amendment to the Workers Compensation Act that would extend presumptive coverage to colon or ureter cancers and lung cancer in non-smokers, and heart attacks within 24 hours of emergency responses. The coverage will also be offered to part-time and volunteer firefighters.
The proposed change is welcome news to firefighters who suffer from illnesses they believe are work-related.
Bruce Kitching, a robust Winnipeg firefighter, collapsed at a bank before work in May 2004. He woke up in a hospital a week later to find he had nearly died when his aorta ruptured. Although he returned home from hospital in March, it's been a rough road.
"It's amazing how your life can change in a split second," he says. "I can't do anything. I eat and sleep basically. If we go out someplace, it's a major operation to organize everything and I can walk maybe 20 feet on my own then I am just absolutely exhausted, it's time for a nap."
A study by the International Association of Fire Fighters found the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths was heart attacks. Kitching thinks the stress of his job may have contributed to his illness.
"I read an article, your life expectancy isn't that long. So that kind of weighs on my mind," he says. "I've had to make sure my wife is going to be secure if I do go."
Other improvements to Workers Compensation introduced
The proposed changes would also help families like Deb Woodman's. Her husband, Jim, was a firefighter for more than 28 years. She says he fought dozens of chemical fires, some when equipment wasn't up to today's standards. Jim was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago; he succumbed to complications of the disease in April 2004.
"He had no history of colon cancer in his family. He was a non-smoker. We feel his cancer was related to the job. He was only 51 years old," says Deb Woodman.
Woodman says her husband filed a claim with the workers compensation board when he was diagnosed with cancer, but was denied, because it didn't think his illness was job-related. The new legislation would cover it.
Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, says the compensation for firefighters who die of heart disease, lung cancer, or colon cancer would be the same as if they had died fighting a fire.
"His family would be looked after, right now a five-year minimum of pay," he explains. "If there's young children, there's a monthly stipend. What this does is give complete coverage for that family."
The amendments introduced to the Workers Compensation Act also includes changes in other areas, including:
- 100 per cent wage replacement for minimum-wage earners.
- Eliminating the age-related reduction of benefits for workers over 45 years old.
- Eliminating reductions in wage replacement after two years.
- Increasing awards for permanent injuries.
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