Halifax firefighters support NDP cancer bill, but labour minister does not

A bill introduced in the Nova Scotia Legislature on Friday would triple the number of cancers on the list of diseases that automatically trigger workers' compensation benefits for firefighters.

Proposed law would triple number of cancers considered work-related injury for firefighters

Halifax firefighter Brendan Meagher said he's watched many of his colleagues die of cancer. (Rob Short/CBC)

The political fight for expanded cancer coverage is a personal one for Halifax firefighter Brendan Meagher.

"Every firefighter knows a firefighter that has cancer," he told reporters. "And in my 22 years I've watched many of my co-workers die from cancer."

The president of the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association stood outside the legislative chamber Friday to offer his support to an NDP bill, tabled in the House, that would triple the number of cancers that would be considered a workplace-related injury automatically.

"We lost a member earlier this year from the Halifax professional firefighters with a type of cancer that's not covered," said Meagher. "It's heartbreaking."

Under current rules, a firefighter who is diagnosed with a cancer in the brain, colon, bladder or kidney, or has leukemia or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and has worked from five-to-20 years, can make a claim for workers' compensation benefits because their form of cancer is considered a workplace-related injury.

MLA Tammy Martin's bill would add a dozen more cancers presumed to be acquired on the job including:

  • ureteral cancer.
  • penile cancer.
  • testicular cancer.
  • breast cancer.
  • prostate cancer.
  • ovarian cancer.
  • skin cancer.

In all those cases a firefighter would have had to have worked a minimum of 10 years.

NDP MLA Tammy Martin is behind a bill that would expand the number of cancers on the list of diseases that automatically trigger workers' compensation benefits for firefighters. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Martin said it is time to update the list.

"We should be offering presumptive coverage for firefighters for what they do every day," she said. "They deserve to have this coverage. We need to look after them the way they look after us."

Kousoulis wants Act overhauled

Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis admitted what Martin was asking for was reasonable, but he is looking to overhaul the Workers' Compensation Act, not simply amend it.

"I can sit there and do this piecemeal or we can do it all at once," he said.

"We are lagging [behind] the rest of the country in terms of the cancer coverage and I am very well aware of that," said Kousoulis.

But he said his focus was on making sure all firefighters across the province were properly covered.

"I'm looking at the broader picture," he said.

Kousoulis said the plan was to expand the list to 17 cancers, but given the rest of the work involved in overhauling the Act it could take up to another year to get it done.

"We need to act soon," Meagher said in response.

"Firefighters deserve that financial security, knowing that if they get sick doing their job, just as if they broke their leg or had a fall, that they should be covered for this work-related illness."

Workers' compensation benefits include sick pay, long-term disability payments, as well as $20,000 in death benefits and support payments for survivors and children to the age of 25.

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