Sens. Introduce Bill for Federal Firefighters Sickened by Working

Liz Carey

Washington, D.C. (WorkersCompensation.com) – Recently, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Tom Carper, D-Del., co-chairs of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, introduced legislation that will ensure federal firefighters receive financial benefits if they contract certain diseases.

The Federal Firefighter Fairness Act of 2021 would classify a range of illnesses – like lung diseases and certain cancers – as “job-related” making them automatically eligible for federal workers’ compensation and disability retirement benefits.

“Every day across the country, firefighters put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe,” Collins said in a statement. “Federal firefighters protect some of our nation’s most critical assets and infrastructure, and these brave men and women should have the same occupational safeguards and benefits as most of their colleagues at the local level. Our legislation would allow federal firefighters to receive the benefits they deserve when they fall ill as a result of their service to our nation.”

Currently, the Federal Employee Compensation Act requires that firefighters pinpoint the precise incident or exposure in order for a disease to be considered job-related. The new legislation would create a presumption that firefighting is a cause of illnesses like heart and lung diseases; as well as brain, blood, skin, bladder, kidney, testicular, breast, digestive system or respiratory system cancer, and require disability or death benefits to the firefighter and their families if they contract them.

The burden of proof is extraordinarily difficult for firefighters to meet because of their work conditions and environments. Federal firefighters are regularly exposed to injury, disease, and stress on the job as they protect military institutions, nuclear facilities, VA hospitals, and other federal facilities.

“Federal firefighters run towards danger to save lives, protect property and safeguard our country’s public lands,” Carper said. “But for too long, they have been forced to navigate a difficult pathway to secure workers’ compensation for diseases shown to be caused by fighting fires — like respiratory illnesses and a variety of cancers. This bipartisan measure would help these heroic men and women get the financial support they deserve for putting their own personal safety at risk.”

Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., co-sponsored the bill.

“Firefighters face immediate danger on a regular basis, but studies have shown that a lifetime of service can also contribute to health problems that arise later in life, including lung disease and a number of cancers,” King said. “For far too long, our federal firefighters facing serious work-related illnesses have been forced to fight a maze of bureaucracies and red tape to receive the worker’s compensation they have earned by answering the call to service. This bipartisan legislation would right this wrong, providing the resources and peace of mind required to focus their energies on getting healthy.”

In 1982, California passed the country’s first firefighter’s presumptive illness law. Since then, 48 states have passed health presumption laws for state and local firefighters. However, those laws do not cover federal firefighters.

According to a study published in the National Institute of Health, firefighters face many occupational hazards.

“Firefighters are routinely exposed to a large number of toxic substances (e.g., carbon monoxide, benzene, particulate, asbestos, polynuclear aromatic compounds, hydrogen chloride, and cyanide) as well as physical hazards such as heat and noise,” the study said. “Their emergency medical response duties also put them at risk of exposure to infectious agents. Firefighters are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, cancer, and noise-induced hearing loss.”

A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., which ensures federal firefighters receive the same access to job-related disability and retirement benefits as state, county, and municipal firefighters. The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

“Firefighters have been on the frontlines as California experiences unprecedented wildfire seasons year after year. When a fire breaks out, it means all hands on deck to protect our communities, regardless of whether you are a federal, state or municipal firefighter,” Carbajal said. “The threshold for federal firefighters to prove work-related illness is much higher than their state or local counterparts here in California and around the nation. This legislation gives our brave federal firefighters the health care benefits they deserve for putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us all.”

The legislation is supported by the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Federation of Government Employees.

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