New Brunswick

Volunteer firefighter with cancer surprised to find he's not covered by WorkSafeNB

Paul Bragg, a 20-year veteran of the Dorchester Fire Department, was diagnosed with throat and tongue cancer in February. His cancer is not one of 10 cancers approved for coverage.

WorkSafeNB not covering 20-year-veteran of the Dorchester Fire Department throat, tongue cancer

Paul Bragg is staying at the Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital while he receives radiation. Monique Benoit is offering her husband moral support while helping him navigate the medical system. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Paul Bragg is in hospital in Moncton receiving radiation treatment for throat and tongue cancer. The Dorchester man is taking a break from his job and from volunteering with the local fire department to focus on his cancer.

He first volunteered in 1999 because he was new to the community and wanted to get to know his neighbours. It worked. But hooked up to an IV with a feeding tube attached to his stomach, Bragg wonders if his time with the department is worth it.

"You have to be aware of how much good in the community you're going to do [compared] to how much devastation you're going to cause your family," he said.

Despite his 20 years volunteering as a firefighter, the 57-year-old won't receive medical coverage through WorkSafeNB.

"Which surprised me because I thought it was pretty cut and dried," said Bragg.

A volunteer firefighter in Dorchester is calling on WorksafeNB to improve compensation. Paul Bragg has neck and tongue cancer -- and he's ineligable for compensation from WorksafeNB. Tori Weldon spoke with Paul Bragg at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre. 7:09

Not all cancers covered

Through WorkSafeNB, full-time and volunteer firefighters are covered for 10 different cancers, depending on length of service. Premiums are paid by the municipality.

Studies show that cancer is the top cause of fatal workplace claims for firefighters, but Bragg has throat and tongue cancer, which isn't on the WorkSafeNB list.

"It seemed pretty obvious that neck and tongue cancer, this is the exposure zone," he said. "We have helmets, we have bunker gear, we have a balaclava hood, but you have this gap."

Bragg said cancer doesn't run in his family and feels his diagnosis is related to his years fighting fires.

Under the Firefighters' Compensation Act, firefighters are covered for primary-site brain, bladder, colorectal, esophageal, kidney, testicular and ureter cancer, in addition to leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and lung cancer in firefighters who were non-smokers for at least 10 years prior to diagnosis.

Mike Walton, president of the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs, said he would have preferred to have more cancers covered than reduced premiums. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

WorkSafeNB said each claim is "adjudicated on a case-by-case basis." In the last five years, 19 claims were made under the act, and seven were rejected.

Between 2015 to 2017, 100 municipalities and 70 local service districts were responsible for paying $690 per full-time and volunteer firefighter. The premiums for 2018 were reduced to $515.

'It all costs money'

But according to Mike Walton, president of the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs, he would have preferred to have more cancers covered than reduced premiums, "but our request was not accepted by the workers' compensation board."

Walton said breast cancer, melanoma and prostate were the cancers his association asked be added to the list.

Other provinces have similar acts covering a variety of cancers. In Ontario, firefighters are covered for 16 cancers, while in Nova Scotia six cancers are covered. Those provinces, Alberta and Manitoba do not offer coverage for tongue and throat cancer. 

Monique Benoit and Paul Bragg married in April, months earlier than planned because of Bragg's cancer diagnosis. Bragg said his fellow firefighters in Dorchester helped pull the wedding together. He married in his uniform. (Submitted/Monique Benoit)

"We're working as hard as we can and as fast as we can to get as many as we can, but it all costs money," Walton said.

Walton is familiar with Bragg's case and knows of another firefighter in a similar position.

Jo-Anne Colford was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer in February of 2017. She believes her cancer is connected to her 17 years as a volunteer firefighter.

"We'd love for it to be one of our cancers, and we're actively trying to increase the amount of cancers that we have [covered]" said Walton.

'Become an electrician'

Bragg, who has medical coverage through his job at Mount Allison University, said being turned down by the province is a tough pill to swallow, but he will pull through financially.

At the Dorchester Fire Department, "we have members that are in their 20s, working by the hour for a local farmer or a local businessman," he said.

"Well, where would they be? They would be devastated."

Bragg wondered if potential recruits will think twice about volunteering once they realize the risks aren't just from immediate issues like fire but from longer-term consequences.

Motioning to his wife, Monique Benoit, Bragg said: "If she wants to be a firefighter, what would I say? 'I'd say, honey, you know what, this guy isn't getting covered. He fights fire, he gets cancer, he's going to die 20 years younger. I don't want you to be a firefighter. Become an electrician.'"

About the Author

Tori Weldon

Reporter

Tori Weldon is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been working for the CBC since 2008.

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