A new piece of legislation extends workers’ compensation rights for Ohio firefighters to include occupational cancers such as mesothelioma.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act into law Jan. 4. The bill essentially classifies cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters, allowing firefighters who have cancer to file claims with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
More than 30 states already have similar laws.
Doug Stern of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters (OAPFF) said the legislation is based on scientific research that links asbestos-related cancers, such as mesothelioma, to firefighters.
“Studies show firefighters are 100 percent more likely to develop mesothelioma than civilians,” Stern told Asbestos.com.
Law Is a Long Time Coming
Palumbo, the bill’s namesake, has battled an incurable form of brain cancer since 2015. His firefighting career dates back nearly three decades.
In addition to mesothelioma, the bill covers firefighters disabled as a result of any cancer incurred while performing official duties as a firefighter. These include, but are not limited to, brain, prostate, colon and lung cancer.
“It’s going to protect them and their families through several different avenues to get the benefits right away that they deserve,” Palumbo told Fox 8 Cleveland.
Stern noted the legislation was a long time coming and a landmark moment for the OAPFF and all firefighters, past and present, in the state of Ohio.
“Mesothelioma was one of those things we knew was there, but we needed a bill that was a little more general than that,” Stern said. “It’s been 32 years to get to this point, and this bill is probably the biggest thing we’ve been able to pass. These cancers are job-related to firefighters.”
Limitations and Potential Reform
As with any new piece of legislation, the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act has its limitations.
To be eligible, a firefighter must have at least six years of active duty and a known history of exposure to cancer-causing toxins such as asbestos.
Perhaps the biggest limitation: Firefighters who have been away from hazardous duty for 20 or more years are ineligible.
“I think we’re always looking at how to make the law better,” Stern said. “Like any law, it will take adjustments and tweaks moving forward. The goal is doing what’s best for the greatest amount of folks.”
Other limitations include denial of coverage if the firefighter is diagnosed after age 70 or if their cancer is linked to other causes such as smoking or tobacco use.
Another unknown is how this legislation might affect firefighters already diagnosed with cancer.
“This bill certainly covers claims from this point on, we’re just not sure right now where retroactivity stands,” Stern said.
Asbestos Exposure Among Firefighters
A 2013 study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showed firefighters have significantly higher rates of cancer compared to the general public.
The majority of firefighters in the study had cancers of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems.
Incidence rates for mesothelioma, which affects the protective lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, were 2.29 times higher for firefighters.
NIOSH researchers suggested the findings are related to asbestos exposure.
Many homes and buildings built between the 1930s and 1970s contain asbestos products. When these structures are damaged by fire or other disasters, toxic asbestos fibers become airborne. Inhaling or ingesting these fibers may lead to serious respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma.
Stern noted the vast majority of asbestos exposures for firefighters stem from “looking for hot spots” — pulling up flooring and tearing down walls — in burning buildings.
He also said the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act is as much about prevention as it is about protection, noting the importance of taking the upmost precautions when on hazardous duty.
“We want all of our members to be wearing breathing apparatuses from the time they step on site to the time they leave that site,” Stern said.
Properly cleaning fire gear, clothing and equipment is also essential.
“We want to protect our firefighters, but ultimately we never want to have to use this bill,” Stern said. “The goal is to prevent exposure so cancer never happens.”