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Ontario Grants Fast-Track Compensation Rights for Work-Related Illnesses

Bereaved families of firefighters who lost their lives to work- related cancers and heart attacks can heave a sigh of relief at last. Ontario’s new labor laws state that they no// longer need to prove the cause of death in order to qualify for compensation due the dead worker’s family.

The changes of regulations will identify eight types of cancer that will be presumed to have been work-related when contracted by full-time firefighters. Heart attacks suffered by firefighters within 24 hours of battling a blaze will also be presumed to be work-related.

There were visible signs of joy at what can be judged as a fair end to a long battle, by many grieving families, when the law was passed, Thursday.

For widow Rebeccah Erskine of Stittsville, the news means that her firefighter husband is finally at peace and that his death has a purpose. He died of colon cancer last April.

At the time of his death he was lobbying the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to cover firefighters who fall ill with colon cancer while on the job.

Says Erskine: “Now no one else has to go through what we went through with this type of cancer. This means so much to me and Mark.”

Without this legislation, the onus was on firefighters to prove they got cancer on the job in order to get compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

In March 1987, 69 Kitchener firefighters rushed into battle against a chemical fire some say spawned a legacy of cancer, Parkinson's disease and birth defects. The deaths that followed the fire at the Horticultural Technologies warehouse were no mere coincidence, firefighters say. As the number of funerals rose (six firefighters and one police sergeant who fought the blaze have since died of cancer) attempts to get compensation for their widows from Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board failed.

Today, the surviving firefighters hope new legislation will chang e that. Says Steve Jones, president of the Kitchener Professional Fire Fighters Association: "It's been 20 years we've been waiting for this.”

Unknown to firefighters, the Horticultural Technologies plant contained hundreds of chemicals, including pesticides, acids and aerosol paint cans. In the years following the fire, firefighters who were at the scene reported babies born with birth defects, elevated rates of cancer and Parkinson's disease.

Studies have shown that full-time, urban firefighters are two to three times more likely to die from cancer than the general population.

Nathan Shaw, 22, shed tears of joy at the announcement of the new laws, Thursday:"I'm speechless. It's been a hard battle for many firefighters and their families across the province.”

When asked if the new law was a fitting legacy to his father, Bob Shaw, who died of esophageal cancer in 2004, he said: "Without question. For my father and all firefighters who have died after suffering a terrible illness because of their job."

Bob Shaw spent days battling a blaze under black plumes of chemical smoke at Hamilton's Plastimet plant in 1997. It is considered one of Canada's worst industrial fires.

The Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association had long been lobbying the government to better compensate firefighters for cancers. The association has said that presumptive legislation was needed for firefighters because they are not able to refuse unsafe work conditions and are required to enter environments with over “70,000 different chemicals and 70 million different chemical combinations” to perform their work, according to Paul Atkinson, the workers compensation representative for Toronto firefighters.

The WSIB has routinely denied claims by firefighters who developed cancer. It has always said there was not sufficient enough evidence to link certain cancers to firefighting, and instead preferred to work on a case-by -case basis. However, new studies have increasingly shown that firefighters are more likely to die of cancer than others.

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