For workers who are injured on the job, securing workers’ compensation is often a straightforward task. For firefighters diagnosed with cancer after frequent exposure to life-threatening toxins, that task can become a painstaking chore that can have them fighting not only their disease, but also the law.
Firefighting is a much different job than it was a few decades ago. Jeremy Mader, chairman of the Loudoun Career Firefighters Association, said that firefighters are exposed to many more cancer-causing substances because household items are mainly petroleum based and emit toxic chemicals into the air when they burn.
“It’s more toxic now—literally everything in the house is plastic,” he said. “We’re exposed to a lot of stuff.”
Virginia firefighters diagnosed with cancer who seek workers’ compensation from the county for years have been required to prove that they came into contact with a specific toxic substance while on the job. That’s because the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act places the burden of proof on the firefighter.
Although firefighters wear 75-pound, three-layer turnout gear that protects them from the 1,000-degree flames, the protective suits have weak spots that allow toxins to seep in, according to Loudoun County firefighter Cathy McCray, who’s been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She said, when firefighters are working in that heat, the sweat from their heads drips from their fireproof hoods down to their groins, bringing cancer-causing soot along with it. It then sits there and slowly seeps into their skin, which is already dilated by the heat.
While the law now on the books automatically presumes hypertension and respiratory or heart diseases to be occupational, firefighters with cancer basically have to retrace their steps to determine which toxin may have caused their illness.
To do that, they need to prove that they have been in contact with toxic substances, including soot, asbestos, malathion and heavy metals like cadmium, beryllium, arsenic, cobalt, mercury, lead and manganese.In August 2015, a Virginia appellate court ruled that Garrett Whiting, the former fire marshal for the City of Charlottesville, had to prove not only that he came into contact with a specific carcinogen, but that it alone caused his prostate cancer.
Current law allows presumptions for leukemia or pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian or breast cancer,but firefighters who develop testicular, colon and brain cancers don’t have the option to apply for workers’ compensation.
Mader said that’s a major problem because firefighters are two times more prone to developing testicular cancer than workers in other fields. “Testicular cancer is probably the highest rated cancer that firefighters get,” he said.
Two bills filed in the General Assembly aim to change the law and give firefighters with cancer a better shot at securing workers’ compensation. The legislation, if passed, would add testicular, colon and brain cancer to the list of covered occupational diseases for firefighters across Virginia. It would also eliminate a firefighter’s responsibility to prove that he or she came into contact with a specific carcinogen.
“We’re just trying to get the burden of proof shifted,” Mader said. “It’s trying to make it easier for our guys to get covered.”
Similar bills last year failed to pass.
A state Department of Planning and Budget analysis estimates the change in the law would require additional contributions of $25,900 to $103,400 in next fiscal year to cover the 19,000 affected employees statewide.
Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors has expressed support of the change, even though it would likely mean higher costs to the county government.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said that she fully supports the bills and has been in close contact with leaders in the county’s Combined Fire and Rescue System.
“Supporting the cancer presumption bill was obvious to me,” she said. “I believe it’s vitally important for local government to support the physical and mental health of our first responders.”
County Public Affairs and Communications Officer Glen Barbour said that the county paid out a little more than $1 million in workers’ compensation for career and volunteer firefighters last year.
McCray, a 14-year career firefighter who was diagnosed last May with stage three ovarian cancer, is one Loudoun firefighter who will soon see how the current law plays out. Fortunately, ovarian cancer was added to the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act just months before she was diagnosed.
In the past eight months, McCray has spent about $7,500 in copays on doctor’s visits, tests and treatments. She’s now prepared to apply for workers’ compensation from the county government. Although she’ll have to prove that she came into contact with a specific carcinogen, she’s hopeful that the law will play into her favor. She said that because she tested negative for genetic cancer, there’s a greater chance that her workplace environment brought on her cancer, potentially defining it as an occupational disease and requiring the county to cover her medical bills.
“I know what it takes to try to fight … to win your case,” McCray said.
For the sake of Loudoun firefighters who might develop cancer in the future, Mader said that he’s optimistic the bills will pass in the coming weeks and change the law, and the lives of firefighters, for years to come.
If the legislation fails, Mader said that firefighters across Virginia would come back next year with more support and energy. “We’ll be even more organized,” he said.