RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Firefighters are often exposed to dangerous toxins and chemicals on the job.
In Virginia, there has been a push to better protect these first responders who are diagnosed with certain types of cancer.
Bipartisan legislation proposed this General Assembly session would do two things.
First, it would add brain, testicular and colon cancers to the list of presumed occupational diseases covered by the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act for firefighters and certain other employees.
Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville) introduced HB1245.
“These are men and women who run into burning buildings to save us,” said Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville).
The twin legislation, HB472, was introduced by Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun).
“When you’re at a fire, you see the timbers burning. You can feel the heat. You can see the flames. But do you see the carcinogens that are there? You don’t see them. They’re invisible, but they’re dangerous. They’re insidious and they’re lethal. That’s what we’re trying to address today,” said Hugo.
The second thing the proposed legislation would do is flip the burden of proof from the employee to the employer.
Right now, firefighters must prove that a toxin they were exposed to caused their particular cancer.
“The employee has to at the very least hire an attorney, go through a very laborious process identifying the fires they’ve been on and the type of chemicals they’ve been exposed to,” said Robert Bragg, President of Virginia Professional Firefighters.
He said tracking that data can be difficult — especially for firefighters who have been responding to emergencies for decades.
“You may have been on the scene for an hour but you may have been exposed the entire time or you may have been exposed for 15 minutes,” he said.
But even with detailed documentation, some firefighters are still finding themselves against a wall.
It’s something Steve Weissman knows a lot about. The Stafford County deputy fire chief was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years ago.
“After 40 years as a firefighter in the commonwealth of Virginia, I thought that my benefits would be there in case I get injured or sick. I found out that’s not the case,” he said.
Weissman has been injured on the job multiple times during his long career in service.
“I’ve always put in for workers’ compensation and never been denied,” he said.
But that was different when he filed a workers’ compensation claim after receiving his cancer diagnosis.
Despite having documentation from a doctor linking his diagnosis to his job, it was denied.
“Quite frankly, I was shocked,” said Weissman.
He racked up medical bills and burned through more than 800 hours of sick leave for treatment.
Bragg described it as another kick in the teeth for firefighters who receive a cancer diagnosis.
“What we’ve done and what I think the fire service has done a better job of over the last few years is identifying the risk and better decontamination procedures,” he said. “We’re doing our part. All we’re asking for today is level the playing field so we got a chance.”
The subcommittee voted 7-0 to advance the legislation. It is now being referred to the appropriations committee.
Supporters say it’s a giant step forward since similar legislation was killed in past years.
Despite the risks, firefighters say the love of the job is what keeps them coming back.
“I don’t like using the word heroes, but every one of us is a hero,” said Weissman. “Knowing the hazards, knowing the side effects, knowing what it could cause long term for us and these men and women are still doing it is beyond reproach.”
As for his own claim, Weissman has been through the appeals process twice. He hired a lawyer and is now filing his case in the commonwealth’s court of appeals.
“I’m hoping they’ll side my way. If not, my next step would be the Virginia Supreme Court,” he said.