Columns, Opinion

RENNER: Firefighters deserve workers’ compensation for cancer risk

A presumption law is one that will protect you no matter what — even if you don’t have any proof. This kind of law is especially important when it comes to doling out disability benefits to chronically ill workers.

Any Google search containing the words “presumption” and “cancer” will turn up results about firefighters. As the heroes who risk their lives, and face deadly flames and toxic chemicals regularly, they have become the face of a rising movement to change the way workers’ compensation cases are handled. Numerous studies have shown that firefighters are far more at risk than the average person for multiple forms of cancer. But some states, almost unbelievably so, refuse to recognize this as a matter of fact.

The Huffington Post and The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline reported Mike Rine’s story on Monday. Mike was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma at age 30. He doesn’t have any of the risk factors — fair skin, blistering sunburns, family history — but he has fought more than 200 fires. Now, three years after his diagnosis, Mike says he knows for a fact that he is dying, and he doesn’t want to spend his final moments “fighting for benefits [he’ll] never get.” Had he worked in one of three-dozen other states, however, it’d be a different story.

But in Ohio, Mike’s home state, he would have to somehow prove that his illness was caused by a specific fire in order to receive workers’ compensation. This is obviously impossible, and the Ohio legislature knows it. Although numerous bills have been proposed to amend this, the state’s cities and counties have immediately shut them down. Why? Because such measures “would considerably increase premiums and administrative costs.” Simply put, they don’t want to pay for it.

The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation estimated that if such bill were passed to cover these medical expenses, it would cost them about $75.3 million. A lot of money, sure, but someone is paying it regardless. And right now, it’s Mike Rine. A man who volunteered his health to help others is now paying for it — literally. Firefighters’ unions and others who support the passing of presumption laws, such as the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, stress the importance of not only protecting firefighters during their careers, but after as well. This concept sounds reasonable enough, but our grasp on what defines the “after” part of a career in terms of health is just as fuzzy as the grasp we have on cancer itself.

The sad thing is, as we take steps forward in the fight against this disease, we take steps backwards in the fight for workers’ compensation. Studies that provide insight on what causes cancer also provide those who oppose presumption laws with the grounds to dismiss workers’ pleas for help. Their logic looks something like this: if bacon causes cancer, and you eat bacon for breakfast occasionally, then your cancer might have been caused by that. Workers’ compensation denied.

We need to retrace our steps, which have been caked with legal garbage, to find the core values we have lost. It’s not a fair fight to pin science and law against moral obligation. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to Mike Rine that the World Health Organization connects processed meats with cancer. What matters to Mike Rine is the bill he comes home to after a long day he had to spend at the hospital instead of at work. It’s unfortunate that he, along with hundreds of others, has been forced to suffer beyond just a cancer diagnosis. It’s unfortunate that, unless these laws are passed quickly, hundreds more could join Mike Rine. Most unfortunate, however, would be the perpetuation of this injustice due to your silence.

One Comment

  1. Dear Elise,

    Thank you for supporting this.

    Cancer stricken firefighters face an uphill battle to receive their earned benefits. Firefighters must pay attorneys and expert witnesses out of their own pockets to pursue a rightful claim, while cities have tax-payer funded law departments to mount their defense. Further, cities generally don’t authorize burnt material testing – so firefighters don’t know (and can’t prove) what they were exposed to. In the after fire clean ups, the evidence is literally hauled away. Exposure to toxic materials can cause cancer 20 – 30 years later (the so-called “latency period”), and at that point, there is literally no evidence left to prove the rightful claims.

    The “cancer presumption” laws you refer to are specifically meant to remedy this. They ensure sick firefighters get their earned benefits.

    The next time you see a fire remember the price the firefighter is paying. Heart and lung disease used to take most firefighters (for which there is a presumption in almost every state). This has been quickly eclipsed by cancer — a painful, drawn out, disabling disease — which is destroying firefighters’ lives and the lives of their families.

    Kara Afrates
    Lorain, Ohio