Cancer Tied to Exposure During Firefighting Although 33 states make it possible for firefighters to receive workers’ compensation for cancer, Georgia is one of the states where this rarely ever happens. Here, laws prevent firefighters from receiving workers’ compensation to cover cancer despite recent studies, including a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, that put firefighters at far greater risk for developing a variety of cancers because of the increased exposure to carcinogens. Firefighters who develop cancer can suffer a great deal, the illness severely impacting their ability to work and support their families as well a causing physical and mental pain. Even for cases when cancer can be cured, the long-term effects on the victim can be significant, including increased risk of heart problems, infections, joint issues, learning disabilities, and a myriad of other negative consequences.
Veto of the BillWhen House Bill 216 was first introduced in February of 2015, it promised to expand certain provisions that would grant firefighters who had been diagnosed with work-related cancers to collect workers’ compensation. A little over a year later, it would pass in the state senate, only to be vetoed by Gov. Deal who stated he did not think there was enough proof to support the bill, that the problem was not yet significant enough in Georgia, and that it potentially would lead to future financial instability for Georgia workers’ compensation. Meanwhile, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Georgia, Jim Davis, had harsh words for the governor. He argued the Gov. Deal was merely paying lip service to firefighters for their indispensible service, yet turning his back on them when they needed help in return. Despite safety equipment, firefighters will continue having to fight cancer, many as young as in their twenties, completely on their own.
Occupational Risks of FirefightingNot only are firefighters at significantly higher risks for cancer, their job presents a constantly changing environment full of new hazards. In the course of their work, they will not only be faced with the carcinogens related to fighting fires, but also buildings lacking structural integrity, increasing the risk for falls, and a variety of physically and mentally strenuous situations. In addition to their duties fighting fires, these men and women are also called upon to help out in many emergency situations, including industrial disastrous, earthquakes, floods, traffic accidents, hazardous chemical or material spills, aviation, maritime accidents, as well as search and rescue missions both above and below ground. This fast-paced job, though extremely rewarding for the firefighters themselves, comes with many occupational risks including:
- Developing cancer – Frequent exposure to carcinogenic chemicals put firefighters at increased risk for developing several different cancers, particularly multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, testicular cancer, and prostate cancer. Chemicals behind these disease range from the exhaust of fire trucks to chloroform, formaldehyde, benzene, styrene, and soot, and may either be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
- Increased risk of heart attack – Exposure to the extreme temperatures of fires also puts firefighters at risk for heart attack. In fact, research suggests that firefighters have an increased risk of anywhere from 10 to 100 times more of having a heart attack when on the scene, fighting a fire. Despite spending only 20 percent of their time fighting fires, a startling 32 percent of firefighter heart attack deaths occur at fire scenes.
- Danger from burns and smoke – Working putting out fires, of course, also exposes firefighters to the risk of getting burns. These burns range from minor to fatal third degree burns. In addition, firefighters can also be caught in burning buildings or be overwhelmed by smoke inhalation if there are any equipment failures. Combined, these threats account for 34 percent of firefighter deaths according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
- Falls – Falls can be part of almost any job, but firefighters face extreme falls in burning buildings where floors, stairways, or roofs can easily collapse with no warning. With drops of 10 feet or more, this means firefighters risk a variety of serious injuries, including broken bones.
- Strains – The serious nature of the work means firefighters must handle and wear lots of heavy equipment, including face masks, oxygen tanks, and thick coats. On top of protective gear, firefighters must also handle hoses, ladders, axes, and many other pieces of firefighting equipment. This extra weight adds strain to the burden of doing the job and puts firefighters at significant risk for overexertion. Nearly 25 percent of all fire-related casualties are caused by such overexertion injuries.