The Utah Labor Commission has taken a step toward finding out if firefighters and police officers with cancer and other ailments developed the diseases because of hazards associated with their jobs.
The commission is using $500,000 designated by the Legislature over the next two years to study whether cancer and other diseases are a result of public safety employees’ working conditions, which would make them eligible for workers compensation benefits.
On Wednesday, the commission began crafting the proposal it is seeking from researchers.
A 2002 study by a University of Miami researcher of more than 30,000 Florida firefighters over about 20 years showed higher incidences of cancer among firefighters than the general population. But that study and others have failed to establish a direct link between diseases and the occupation.
“We just don’t know what the issue is,” David Daniels, chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ safety, health and survival section, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta.
“Too many folks are dying on the job and from it. We can’t prove it yet, but we have anecdotes everywhere suggesting firefighters are getting cancer at higher rates than the general population.”
Rep. Joseph Murray, R-Ogden, sponsored the bill authorizing the study, which will be designed to prove whether there’s enough evidence to presume a public safety worker got a disease in the course of his or her job.
Last fall, British Columbia’s government authorized a compensation act that recognizes firefighters face an increased risk of cancer, putting the burden of proof on the government to show why a worker shouldn’t receive compensation. It followed similar acts in other Canadian provinces.
It was Murray’s original intent to adopt a similar law, but his bill was substituted in favor of studying the issue during legislative committee hearings.
A presumptive cause law exists in Washington state and is being pursued elsewhere. The Olympia, Wash., fire department has produced a DVD, featuring a firefighter who died of brain cancer, that’s been distributed worldwide as a precautionary tale for public safety workers who are often exposed to asbestos, diesel fumes and other hazards.
“A couple of different states have used this video to convince legislatures to pass that law. It’s helpful to have this DVD,” said Pat Dale, assistant chief for the department.
Murray had pursued a presumptive cause law in Utah for about four years with little success before persuading his colleagues to adopt a different version this spring.
“The bill doesn’t say that it’s cut-and-dried. It says presumptive. We presume the guy got it from exposure from firefighting or police work. Then the employer has the opportunity to say, look, this guy’s got lung cancer, but he’s been smoking 15 years and we just don’t believe he got this exposure in the line of duty. I think that’s reasonable,” Murray said.
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