Lung cancer added to Ontario firefighter health coverage

Lung cancer has been added to the list of cancers presumed to be related to firefighting, following the addition of breast and testicular cancers, as well as multiple myeloma, in 2014.

Lung cancer becomes latest condition to be covered under what's called presumptive legislation

As of Jan. 1, the onus is no longer on firefighters — full-time, part-time and volunteer — and fire investigators in Ontario to prove their lung cancer is work-related. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

The City of Ottawa is budgeting an extra $3 million for workers' compensation for firefighters in 2016, as the list of cancers presumed to be related to a firefighter's exposure to toxins on the job grows longer.

As of Jan. 1, the onus is no longer on firefighters — full-time, part-time and volunteer — and fire investigators in Ontario to prove their lung cancer is work-related.

Firefighters, seen here battling a blaze on Ottawa's Somerset Street in October 2015, had lung cancer added to a list of cancers presumed to be work-related for WSIB benefits.

It is the latest condition to be covered under what's called presumptive legislation, which was first passed for firefighters in Ontario in 2007.

In 2014, the provincial government expanded the list beyond an initial eight cancers to include six more that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board must presume is an occupational disease.

Breast cancer, multiple myeloma and testicular cancer were added in the spring of 2014, followed by prostate cancer in 2015. Skin cancer is to be phased in on Jan. 1, 2017.

The legislation is retroactive to 1960, so it applies to claims by the families of firefighters who have died.

"It was very emotional, and emotional for the family," said Peter Kennedy, president of the Ottawa Professional Fire Fighters Association, of the former process that saw firefighters try to prove their work caused their cancer. "Because, they just knew through a number of horrendous incidents that it had to be related.

"What it does now in the future is give you some comfort that your family will be taken care of," explained Kennedy, who said the life expectancy of a firefighter is about age 70.

The Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association knows of 101 cases of lung cancer among firefighters province-wide, as well as 175 cases of prostate cancer and 68 cases of the other four forms of cancer.

Many WSIB costs fall to municipalities

Cities such as Ottawa are responsible for paying the full WSIB benefits to their employees, so they are adding those costs to their budgets.

"One of the biggest challenges are WSIB costs," Anthony Di Monte, acting general manager of emergency and protective services, told councillors during a 2016 budget presentation at the end November.

Anthony Di Monte, acting general manager of emergency and protective services for the City of Ottawa, says WSIB costs are a challenge for municipal budgets. (CBC)

He cited the presumptive legislation, and how some Ottawa firefighters benefit from WSIB because of the six "tragic" cancers being added.

Of the $37-million gap the City of Ottawa had to close by finding cuts and savings to balance its budget, $4 million dollars was for increased costs for workers' compensation, mostly for firefighters but also for paramedics. That number is based on what Ottawa saw in 2015.

Kennedy, of the firefighters' union, acknowledged the addition of each cancer is a "one-time hit" for the city.

But he also credited the City of Ottawa with working to prevent its firefighters from getting cancer in the first place.

For instance, Ottawa Fire Services recently bought new "self-contained breathing apparatus" that front-line firefighters must wear inside a structure as they attack a fire or perform rescues.

It also launched a fitness and wellness program including medical evaluations that could detect cancer early.

"We're well below the provincial median for firefighter deaths," said Kennedy, "so we're doing a lot right, here in Ottawa."

Associations seek post-traumatic stress disorder WSIB coverage

The City of Ottawa is also preparing for future costs should post-traumatic stress disorder among firefighters, paramedics and police eventually be covered by presumptive legislation some day, Di Monte told councillors during that budget presentation.

A bill to that effect was introduced by NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo at Queen's Park in July 2014. Her bill is expected to be debated again in February, and DiNovo hopes Ontario will eventually follow the examples of Alberta and Manitoba, which have passed similar legislation.

Kennedy said the issue has been a priority for the provincial association of firefighters, and has seen traction among government ministers as well. The Ontario Paramedic Association has also pushed for the change.

"It's a very difficult job and you do see a lot of things that the general public may not experience," said Kennedy.

In the meantime, Di Monte said Ottawa Fire Services is coming up with a mental health strategy that includes PTSD.

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