For years, firefighters in Arizona have been fighting to have occupational diseases, like cancer, covered under workers’ compensation insurance. Finally, all their hard work has paid off.
On April, 15, 2021, Governor Doug Ducey signed Senate Bill 1451 into law.
“Firefighters and other first responders dedicate countless hours to protecting our communities and keeping Arizonans safe,” said Governor Ducey. “It’s our job to protect them too. This bill expands protection for diseases acquired through the job, and helps ensure our safety professionals receive the support and resources they need.”
The bill provides firefighters with expanded workers’ compensation protections, specifically by making it easier for Arizona firefighters to receive benefits for certain cancer diagnoses.
The presumptive cancer protection means that firefighters no longer have to prove where the cancer they developed came from in order to be covered by workers’ compensation. Instead, certain types of cancer are automatically considered occupational.
Additionally, the bill includes provisions to expand firefighters’ workers’ comp benefits in general by expanding the payouts for accrued medical expenses further than typical workers’ comp, as well as expanding access to fire investigators and adding 2 new kinds of cancer to the presumptive occupational disease list.
This wasn’t the first time state legislators tried to pass measures to protect the firefighting community. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled similar legislation in the Arizona House last year.
According to Senator Paul Boyer, who pushed for this legislation since 2016, “[t]he signing of Senate Bill 1451 is a huge win for Arizona’s firefighters and fire investigators that also includes female cancers.”
Firefighters face higher risk of occupational cancer
According to the International Association of Firefighters, more firefighters die from cancer than from on-the-job accidents. Thirty years ago, the occupational cancers most often diagnosed amongst firefighters were associated with asbestos exposure, such as mesothelioma. Today, more firefighters are diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
Under Arizona’s presumptive cancer laws, there are 20 cancers that are automatically covered by workers’ compensation for firefighters. These cancers include:
- Brain cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Colon/rectal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Lymphatic cancer (lymphoma)
- Multiple myeloma
- Skin cancer
- Testicular cancer
Under the new bill, breast and ovarian cancers were also added to the presumptive cancer list.
Previously, insurance companies and third-party workers’ comp administrators would deny claims on the grounds that firefighters would be required to reasonably prove where they were exposed to the carcinogens that led to their cancer. This was problematic because firefighters didn’t have a way to track what toxins they’re exposed to while in the line of duty.
Arizona’s first presumptive workers’ compensation cancer bill was written in 2001. While it was extremely difficult to prove that a firefighter’s cancer could be caused by their workplace exposure back then, medical advances over the past 20 years have improved so drastically that this update to the criteria system was a long time coming.
Arizona workers’ compensation insurer responsibilities
While this new bill is good news for firefighters and their families, it does have its share of critics.
For starters, the addition of new cancers added to the presumptive list, as well as coverage for fire investigators, will likely lead to increases in workers’ comp costs. The exact figures on how much the additions will cost aren’t known yet; however, the bill allows insurers to pass along a rate increase to employers and fire departments in order to balance out the additional costs.
Moreover, insurance costs could also be higher due to previously denied claims being reevaluated and granted benefits once the expanded law goes into effect. Senator Boyer has also stated that he put in a request to the Arizona budget that would provide money for those cities, counties and government agencies that are already paying for firefighter cancer claims through the AZ Department of Revenue.
The state and cities would pay out the money for eligible claims upfront and then be reimbursed.
Additionally, the bill changes the burden of proof to employers and insurance companies to prove that a firefighter’s cancer was not caused by carcinogens they were exposed to on the job. So needless to say, many insurers aren’t too happy about the change.
In order to ensure that there is ample funding for firefighter injury claims, the Industrial Commission of Arizona will provide all relevant data to employers, employees and insurers to get their input to set compensation rates.
Arizona firefighter injuries
Being a firefighter is a dangerous job that exposes the men and women who serve to countless on-the-job hazards and risks. When most people think of firefighters being injured at work, they think of severe burns. However, with the amount of protective gear firefighters are required to wear, the rate of firefighter burns is actually quite low.
Rather, firefighters are more likely to be injured by other hazards that occur on fire scenes, as well as non-fire related emergencies. Common firefighter injuries include:
- Asphyxiation and respiratory trauma
- Dehydration and exhaustion
- Dislocations and fractures
- Occupational disease
- Overexertion, muscle strains and sprains
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Spinal cord injuries
- Thermal stress (frostbite or heat exhaustion)
- Wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises
In addition to on-the-job hazards, firefighters are also exposed to countless chemicals which can lead to occupational diseases. The most common occupational diseases that firefighters are susceptible to are cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Even with the hazards they face every day, heroic firefighters still literally run into burning buildings to save lives. This reason alone should mean that these brave men and women shouldn’t have to fight a second battle if they become sick from performing their job. Allowing firefighters to access workers’ compensation benefits for occupational diseases ensures that they can focus on what’s most important: getting healthy.
If you or a loved one is a firefighter and were diagnosed with an occupation disease, don’t struggle to make ends meet on top of trying to regain your health. Let one of the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at the Law Offices of Robert E. Wisniewski help work to get you the compensation you deserve.