Across Virginia, firefighters are on a mission: to secure fair workers’ compensation benefits for all. The Virginia workers’ compensation system is designed to provide benefits to all employees who suffer an on-the-job injury or develop an illness related to work. Yet some firefighters are unable to access these benefits when they need them the most.
Under the current system, certain types of cancers are excluded from the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act. This means that some Virginia firefighters have to prove that their cancer was caused by exposure to a specific toxin through the work — which is an impossible task for many.
A new bill aims to change the law so that workers’ compensation benefits are extended automatically to all firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace. As a Richmond workers compensation attorney can explain, if this bill is signed into law, it will result in great equality for public safety employees throughout Virginia.
The Virginia Workers’ Compensation System
Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that most employers in Virginia are required to carry. It is a no-fault system where employees who are hurt or who develop an illness on the job are eligible for certain benefits. Under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, a workers’ compensation claim must be filed with two years of when an injury occurs of when a work-related illness or disease is diagnosed.There are a number of benefits available under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act. Depending on the facts of the case, an injured worker may be eligible for lifetime medical benefits, wage loss replacement, permanent partial disability, permanent total disability, death benefits, or other benefits. A skilled Richmond workers compensation attorney may also be able to negotiate a settlement for expenses such as long-term care, lost wages and other losses.
The no-fault aspect of the workers’ compensation system ensures that employees who suffer a work-related illness or injury are compensated for it, without the time or expense of litigation to prove that their medical issue was caused by their job. It generally allows workers to get the benefits that they need quickly.
For firefighters, the workers’ compensation system is slightly different. Current law includes preemptions that certain types of cancers are related to their work, including leukemia, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, rectal cancer, throat cancer, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
Other types of cancer (such as testicular, colon and brain cancers) are not included within these presumptions. Firefighters who are diagnosed with these cancers are required to prove that they came into contact with carcinogens while on the job that caused their cancer. In addition, they must also demonstrate that this specific carcinogen caused their cancer — and not another cause.
How Firefighters Are Exposed to Toxins at Work
In modern homes, many household items are made of plastic and other petroleum-based substances. When they burn, they emit toxic chemicals into the air. Although Virginia firefighters wear standard safety gear to protect them from flames that can get as hot as 1,000 degrees, these suits do not necessarily protect them from the toxins that are released from burning substances within burning structures, vehicles, and other emergency situations.
Firefighters in Virginia wear 75 pound, three-layer turnout gear. These protective suits do a great job at shielding firefighters from heat, but they have weak spots that may allow toxins to seep in, according to some firefighters. In addition, firefighters are working in extreme heat, which causes their sweat to drip from their heads down their bodies, carrying toxin-containing soot. Their pores are already dilated from heat, making them more susceptible to absorbing these potentially hazardous chemicals.
Firefighters have the potential to be exposed to any number of toxic chemicals in a fire, including soot, asbestos, malathion, or heavy metals such as cadmium, beryllium, arsenic, cobalt, mercury, lead, and manganese. For this reason, an expanded workers’ compensation bill that provides full coverage for all types of cancers is necessary to protect the brave men and women who are there for all of us in emergencies.
Bill Passes First Hurdle
Senate Bill 1030 would add colon, brain and testicular cancers to the list of cancers that are presumed to be occupational diseases that are covered by the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act when firefighters and certain other public safety employees develop cancer. By adding this presumption to the Act, it would be easier for firefighters to access benefits as they would no longer be required to prove that they contracted cancer from a specific toxin or carcinogen at work.
In late January 2019, the bill passed the Virginia Senate by a vote of 39 to 1. The vote occurred one week after hundreds of firefighters from across Virginia marched through Richmond in support of Senate Bill 2030. Governor Ralph Northam appeared at the march to voice his support for the bill, stating, “These are the men and women that every day keep us safe in our communities and the least that we can do, I wouldn’t put a dollar figure on it.”
The bill now moves to the House for its approval, where its counterpart, House Bill 1804 is awaiting a hearing in the House Finance Committee. If it is approved by the House, Governor Northam is expected to sign the bill.
How a Richmond Workers Compensation Attorney Can Help
If you have been injured at work or developed an illness due to workplace exposures, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation. A Richmond workers compensation attorney can work with you to help you get benefits that you are entitled to under the law.
Since 2006, the Injured Workers’ Law Firm has helped employees who have been hurt on the job throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. We work hand in hand with our clients to help them get the benefits that they deserve so that they can focus on what is truly important: their health and well-being. To learn more, call us today at 804-755-7755, or contact us online. Initial consultations are always free.
About the Author: Michele Lewane
The Injured Workers Law Firm is a Richmond, Virginia based firm solely focused on serving clients with workers' compensation claims in Virginia. If you have questions about your benefits or if you would like more information on the Virginia workers’ compensation system, order our book, “The Ultimate Guide to Workers’ Compensation in Virginia” , or call our office today (804) 755-7755.