Sterling HeightsJune 11, 2012
Firefighters: Cancer cases illustrate need for legislation
By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer
They’re assisting colleague Eric Post now through an upcoming fundraiser, but Sterling Heights firefighters also are looking longer range and larger scale through promotion of pending cancer presumption legislation.
The law would, under certain conditions, presume that a firefighter contracted cancer via on-the-job hazards, making him or her eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.
Similar legislation previously passed by the Michigan House of Representatives didn’t progress past a Senate committee, but state Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, introduced another version, Senate Bill 94, in February 2011.
Rocca said he was spurred by studies indicating firefighters are more likely than the general population to develop certain cancers, making it a “work-related” sickness.
“They are exposed to all kinds of toxic chemicals at work,” he said. “A lot of people just assume that their gear actually protects them … but that’s not the case.”
In a presentation to the Michigan Senate, Sterling Heights Fire Department Lt. Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, said firefighters come in contact with such carcinogens as benzenes, chloroform, formaldehyde and cyanides in “extremely volatile and hazardous conditions” during every blaze.
“Even though we wear protective clothing to protect us from the heat and from breathing the smoke, it still permeates our skin,” he said. “This is something that we cannot stop. It is a reality we face every time we do our job.”
A cancer presumption law would establish specific criteria regarding lifestyle, job traits and diagnosis to determine who qualifies, said Bob Haase, president of Sterling Heights Fire Fighters Local 1557.
For instance, it would apply to fully paid, active firefighters of at least five years who cannot have consistently used tobacco over the preceding decade and have one of seven types of cancer: respiratory, bladder, skin, brain, blood, kidney or lymphatic, he said.
“These particular cancers have been proven to be upwards of three to four times more prevalent in the firefighting profession,” said Haase. “Thirty-three other states currently have this type of presumptive law. Michigan does have presumptive laws for heart and lung disease, which have been in place for over 35 years.”
Docherty said the legislation would only apply to cases in which firefighters are not covered by disability pensions or are denied coverage by their pension systems.
Samantha Harkins, legislative associate for the Michigan Municipal League, said that’s part of the reason the MML opposes such a presumption. The group has urged people to contact their senators to speak out against SB 94.
“We don’t think that there’s any problem in Michigan in terms of firefighters being covered,” she said. “We’re not at all immune to the concern that we have employees — be they firefighters or not — that have illnesses, have cancer, but … they have insurance to cover it.”
According to Harkins, actuarial analysis has suggested the legislation could cause workers’ compensation premiums to double in cities with full-time firefighters.
And if municipalities must shoulder the burden of increased premiums, she said, “those cuts come from somewhere else.”
Rocca said the bill’s supporters are working with its opponents to find a funding source, but insists only a handful of firefighters statewide would qualify each year, and the costs to cities would not be unreasonable.
With the bill far from finalized, and with case frequency and severity likely to vary, it’s impossible to accurately estimate how much a cancer presumption could cost Sterling Heights, said Mark Carufel, the city’s risk manager.
He acknowledged that the number of claims and subsequently costs would rise if a presumption were in place. However, he noted that nothing prevents any employee now from seeking workers’ compensation by making an evidence-based case that they sustained the illness or injury on the job.
“They do have coverage right now; they just don’t have the presumption,” said Carufel. “They have that right, and we certainly would look at any claim, as any employer would.”
A presumption, he added, would just shift the onus from the employee to the employer.
Post said he wouldn’t be eligible to reap the law’s benefits — he smoked in the past — but says he remains among its biggest proponents.
Cancer, he said, is “almost like a virus running through the fire departments,” and he attributes much of it to the increasingly synthetic materials comprising products and structures these days.
Arguing the example that an office worker who falls on the job is entitled to workers’ compensation, he added, “We’re not asking for anything really special. We’re just looking for the protections that are afforded to everybody else under workers’ compensation laws.”
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