Michigan Bill Would Treat Firefighter Cancer as Occupational Hazard

A bipartisan measure introduced by Republican Sen. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, would amend Michigan’s worker’s compensation law to guarantee benefits for full-time firefighters who develop certain types of cancer while on the job, reports MLive.com.

Firefighters rarely have time to test for harmful chemicals before rushing into a burning building and are exposed to cancer-causing carcinogens in almost every instance, according to Mark Docherty, President of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, which has advocated for such legislation for more than a decade.

“Under the current system, you have to prove you’re injured on the job,” Docherty said. “That’s easy if you break your leg at a fire scene. But with cancer, it’s more cumulative. Each time you’re exposed to carcinogens you get more and more in your system.”

A Senate panel is scheduled to hear testimony on Rocca’s bill this week, renewing a debate that dates back to at least 1998, when then-Gov. John Engler vetoed similar legislation and called for additional research on the link between firefighting and cancer.

Subsequent research, including a 2006 study conducted by the University of Cincinnati, established that firefighters face an increase risk for certain cancers, and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health currently is studying risk-levels using data from Michigan and several other states.

Rocca’s bill would allow a worker’s comp claim for any full-time firefighter who was employed by a municipality for at least five years before developing respiratory tract, bladder, skin, brain, kidney, blood, thyroid, testicular, prostate or lymphatic cancers.

The protections would not apply to individuals who regularly used tobacco products within 10 years of developing the disease, provided that use was a clear factor in the cause, aggravation or progression of the cancer.

More than 30 other states have adopted worker’s comp laws that presume a connection between workplace carcinogens and firefighters with cancer, according to Docherty, who said the debate in Lansing has shifted from need to cost.

The insurance industry, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, has consistently opposed previous versions of Rocca’s bill. The Michigan Municipal League also opposes the legislation because of fears that it could increase worker’s comp premiums that cities, villages and townships are required to pay.

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