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Yukon firefighters say work-caused cancers need to be compensated

Firefighters say Yukon is falling behind on recognizing which cancers are caused by their jobs.

Firefighters say Yukon falling behind on recognizing which cancers are caused by their job

Firefighters in Whitehorse containing a chimney fire in a Riverdale home in 2013. Certain cancers are presumed to be an occupational disease for some types of work, including firefighting. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

Yukon firefighters want the territorial government to expand the number of cancers they can claim compensation for.

Certain cancers are presumed to be an occupational disease for some types of work, including firefighting.

Yukon has fallen behind most Canadian jurisdictions said Alex Forrest, a Canadian trustee for the International Association of Fire Fighters with observer status for the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

He met with officials at the Yukon Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board to discuss the compensation issue on Tuesday.

Forrest said safety gear protects firefighters from ambient heat upwards of 1,000 degrees, "but it doesn't protect us from what kills us the most. And that's occupational cancer."

Alex Forrest with the International Association of Fire Fighters says firefighters' gear is made to resist extreme heat, but doesn't prevent their skin from absorbing toxins. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"[A] firefighter will fight a fire on a Saturday, will not fight a fire again and on Wednesday he will work out, he will go for a shower, and he will notice that the water is black again," he said.

"That's because it's still coming out of his pores — three to four days after the fire. That's how we're getting the cancers."

According to Forrest, four Whitehorse firefighters have been diagnosed with prostate cancer in the past eight years.

It's not covered under Yukon workers' compensation rules, he said.

He said risks to female firefighters have also not been acknowledged.

"The second issue that has really come through in the last number of years that we're trying to push forward is that women are now a major part of fire services around the world," he said.

Breast, cervical and ovarian cancers are among the eight cancers Forrest said should be covered in the Yukon, but aren't.

Whitehorse firefighters putting out a dump fire in Whitehorse in 2013. (Dave Croft/CBC)

The request for more coverage is on behalf of all firefighters in the territory, said Barry Blisner, president of the Whitehorse Fire Fighters Association and a platoon chief in the city fire department.

"Some of these are inherent dangers," he said, "when you become a firefighter.

"We realize that when we sign up for it, but at the same time we want to protect our members as much as possible."

He estimates there are about 300 community firefighters in Yukon.

Forrest said wildland firefighters are also at risk.

Government review focus on modernization

The territorial government has begun a review of the Workers' Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The review is in the public consultation phase now.

Input from the firefighters will be included in the "what we heard" report expected early next year, said Andrew Robulack at the Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board.

"The focus really is on bringing the Yukon into the 21st century so that we catch up with other jurisdictions and we're more in sync with what's going on across the country," said Robulack.

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