Unworkable compensation

Our view: Proposed workers' compensation changes for firefighters go too far

March 25, 2010

Firefighters have a dangerous job. Not only do they face the immediate peril that comes from running into burning buildings, but long-term exposure to known carcinogens that can be inhaled or absorbed while battling fires also raises their risk of cancer.

However, legislation pending in the General Assembly goes too far in compensating firefighters for this risk. The measure would rewrite workers' compensation law to the point that most cancers would be presumed to be the result of on-the-job environmental exposure.

How far is too far? The proposal would presume that any firefighter who is diagnosed with skin, breast, ovarian, testicular or brain cancer (and quite a few others) got it on the job and should therefore be eligible for workers' compensation payouts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That a firefighter spent his free hours on tanning beds or smoked six packs a day could not be used to legally rebut that presumption. As studies show about half of all adults are likely to develop some form of cancer in their lifetime, the measure could prove extraordinarily costly to Baltimore and the 23 counties that employ most of Maryland's firefighters.

Already reeling from budget shortfalls and the loss of state aid, counties are worried about just how big their workers' compensation costs could grow. Montgomery County estimates the average payout would be $1 million per firefighter, but it's impossible to know how many new claims might be filed.

In Baltimore County, workers' compensation has cost county taxpayers $57 million over the last five years, in part because of the many diseases for which there is already a presumption of an occupational cause. State law offers that more lenient evidentiary standard to firefighters who have hypertension, heart or lung disease or leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal or throat cancer.

No one should begrudge firefighters from appropriate compensation for an injury suffered as a result of their profession. But the current system already bends over backward toward the assumption that many common illnesses are work-related.

Private-sector employees certainly don't have that kind of protection. Health care workers are exposed to dangerous diseases every day, but they must prove an occupational exposure was the root cause of injury before a claim can be awarded.

The General Assembly can't keep expanding the list of diseases for which there is a presumption of a work-related cause, no matter how fond they are of public safety workers. It's tilting the workers' compensation system beyond the bounds of fairness.

And it's particularly troubling that lawmakers would seek to do this while simultaneously reducing non-education aid to local jurisdictions - by $600 million over the last three years. If politicians in Annapolis want to reward public safety unions in an election year, let them do it with their own money.

Readers respond
I am a retired Baltimore firefighter. And I say retired because I was forced to, with my diagnosis and treatment of a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. My medical care is being covered under workers' compensation. And, because I had all of the genetic testing done, I have nothing that is a precursor to this type of cancer, so please enlighten me, where else could I have I acquired this horrific nightmare I am living? I'm thinking the run-down buildings I had to enter to resuscitate a drug user; a truck fire carrying hazardous materials that wrecked, or a home that was fully engulfed in flames that I did my job at, so you, Mr. Citizen, would be safer.

I lost my hair, my job, my pension benefits, my career which I so longed to have. Most importantly, I almost lost my life. So as I and my other brothers and sisters risked our lives day in and day out, we absolutely deserve the protection the presumption bill can afford us.

Michelle Lloyd

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