Occupational Disease for First Responders

Posted on Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 at 9:52 am    

OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE: PRESUMPTIONS FOR FIREFIGHTERS, POLICE, AND OTHER FIRST RESPONDERS

Normally, injuries and accidents that occur under Virginia Workers Compensation must consist of a specific traumatic event that caused a sudden anatomical change in the body to the injured worker; however, there are a whole class of cases that do not follow that approach and these are cases which involve an occupational disease.  Sometimes these can be hard to prove, but the Virginia legislature has made it easier for police, firefighters, sheriffs, and other first responders and public law enforcement officers to prove occupational disease claims. 

Without getting into all the specifics of proving an occupational disease, which is covered in other articles, suffice it to say that an occupational disease means a disease arising out of, and in the course of employment, but not including an ordinary disease of life to which the public is equally exposed. 

What this definition means is the oftentimes, even though someone may be suffering from a disease that was directly caused by exposure for instance, to hazardous chemicals on their job, if it is the kind of disease not specifically recognized as arising directly out of the employment, and therefore an ordinary disease that the public may also get, such as a form of cancer, then the disease is not going to be recognized as an occupational disease.  It will be considered an ordinary disease of life and the standards of proof for that are much higher than for a regular occupational disease. 

The good news is that the Virginia legislature carved out an exception to this rule for police, firefighters, sheriffs, and other first responders and public law enforcement officers. 

What this law says is that if you are a firefighter, police officer, or other first responder, then for certain diseases, such as respiratory diseases, hypertension or heart diseases, and certain types of cancers, it is to be presumed that the disease in question is in fact an occupational disease suffered in the line of duty.   

Now this presumption can be overcome by the defense if, for instance, they can prove that the disease came about for exposure to something completely unrelated to work, and that the first responder was not in a position to be exposed to anything that might give rise to the disease in question. 

Unfortunately, insofar as firefighters are concerned, the law as it stands contains some barriers and defects that make it hard to prove some occupational diseases. 

The statute lists a number of presumptions for cancers that firefighters and other first responders are entitled to and they are for the cancers of leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, or breast cancer.  The problem is that the law as it stands now also requires that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recite in their listings that whatever the injured worker was exposed or came into contact with to during their job actually causes, or may cause the type of cancer the injured worker is suffering from.   They also require that the first responder with one of these types of cancer have completed 12 years of continuous service. 

The good news is that according to the case law, the injured worker need only prove one instance of exposure to the toxic chemical during his or her career that may cause cancer as identified by IARC. 

The bad news is that at least one form of cancer on the list specifically has no known cause and that is pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers where medical science currently simply has no idea as to the cause.  Apparently, the only thing that might contribute to it is cigarette smoke. 

Because of this, many agree that the law as currently written, in this regard, for lack of a better word, is ridiculous. The current law in Virginia actually says that pancreatic cancer is one of the presumptive types of cancer that is considered to be contracted in the line of duty, but at the same time, the law also says you have to prove there was exposure to something that might cause it, and as we just said, nothing is known to do that except possibly cigarette smoke. So basically, the Legislature has drafted a law that—at least with respect to pancreatic cancer—is completely useless. 

Moreover, a State Review Board has also noted that the law is lacking as it currently stands. The Joint Legislative Review Commission (JLARC) Audit Report of the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that was released on Monday, December 17, 2019 says on page 3, in the headline: “Requirements to establish cancer presumptions are unreasonably burdensome and not supported by science.” 

The JLARC specifically talks about firefighter benefits and how many claims are denied because the firefighter failed to prove proper exposure to the carcinogen that caused his or her type of cancer.  The JLARC then suggests that all an injured firefighter should have to prove is that he or she fought fires and was exposed to smoke. They say that should be sufficient, given the toxic soup of chemicals that any scientist and industrial hygienist knows is released by any house or industrial fire. I certainly could not agree more. 

We rely on our first responders to protect us. They put their lives on the line for us every day. Can we not make it as easy as possible for them to make a claim in the event they suffer because of the years of dedicated service to this cause? 

Hopefully, plans are afoot in Richmond to change these laws so this never happens to any firefighters or other first responders who in the future develop cancer or any of the other diseases given a presumption in the law. 

In the meantime, if you have been advised that you are suffering from an occupational disease, please do not wait to contact a worker’s compensation lawyer to assist you. You only have two years from the date that the diagnosis was first communicated to you by a physician to file a claim form with the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission. 

If you have been exposed to toxic chemicals in your line of work, and your doctor supports that your disease came from that exposure, and you’re a member of a Union, know that your Union should be able to steer you in the direction of an expert such as an industrial hygienist, or other such expert, who can assist in proving your exposure to the relevant chemicals in your claim. You may very well need his or her testimony in order to win. 

Joe Miller has been representing victims of on-the-job injuries and occupational disease for over 30 years. If you or a loved one has been injured on the job or suffered an occupational disease, please do not hesitate to call us toll free at 888-667-8295. or complete our online contact form