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Heart-related injury coverage reinstated for firefighters in B.C.

Firefighters are getting closer to being covered for heart disease and heart injury incurred on the job.

The B.C. government tabled new legislation March 11, under the Workers Compensation Act, that will restore heart disease and heart injury as a work-related hazard for firefighters.

Under the amendment proposal, if firefighters suffer from heart disease or heart attack, it will be presumed that his was due to their work environment, unless proven otherwise.

Mike Rispin, Nanaimo Professional Firefighters Local 905 president, said he is glad to see the original legislation restored. Legislation protecting firefighters who developed cardiac disease on the job was taken away in 1999.

“Since that time we’ve been showing government the scientific-based research we’ve done and reasons why we should have that back … so we’re very happy,” Rispin said.

The legislation applies if the claimant was employed prior to the date of onset of disablement and is intended to help support firefighters claims to compensation if they suffer heart disease or heart injury due to their work.

The legislation applies to local government and forestry firefighters who first become disabled from cardiac disease or injury on or after the legislation comes into effect, possibly as early as the end of May.

This is not the first time firefighters have been covered for work related cardiac ailments.

Legislation was first brought in to cover firefighters’ work-related heart injury in 1954 and coverage for heart disease was added in 1980, but both coverages were eliminated Sept. 5, 2000.

Capt. Robert Owen, who retired from Nanaimo Fire Rescue in 1996 and died at age 72 after a lengthy battle with heart disease, was the last of Nanaimo’s firefighters protected under the former legislation. It meant Owen’s death was considered in the line of duty and was reflected in his funeral ceremony held in downtown Nanaimo in 2010.

The removal of the legislation in 2000 has been a contentious issue for firefighters. The legislation will not be retroactive, so firefighters will not be covered for the period between 2000 and 2014.

“Sadly we’ll have people that’ll fall through that,” Rispin said, citing the death of former Nanaimo firefighter Bruce McFarlane who died of a heart attack in 2002 and was not protected by the legislation.

Coverage of this nature carries potential additional costs for municipalities that employ firefighters, but only if claims are made throughout the year.

Claims for heart disease and heart injury are relatively rare. Rispin said provincewide about six claims are made annually.

“There is the potential for assessments to go up for employers,” said Scott McLoy, Worksafe B.C. spokesman. “So it really depends on whether or not there are heart disease claims, so if there are no heart disease claims then assessments won’t be affected.”

However, if say five or six claims are made per year, WorkSafe B.C. assessments to municipalities – similar in nature to premiums charged by an insurance company – will rise for all communities across B.C. and can vary from as little as about $2,000 for a small community to as much as $40,000 for B.C.’s large municipalities with the biggest fire departments.

“It really is based on the size of the employer,” McLoy said. “A large municipality, like Surrey, would go up higher because they have more firefighters - in other words, more payroll. If you have a smaller payroll then it would go up less.”

A city the size of Nanaimo could see its assessment, based on five or six claims across the province, increase by about $13,000.

“I think the employers look at it as a cost increase, but overall it’s an acknowledgement that there’s some risk in the profession,” said Craig Richardson, Nanaimo Fire Rescue Chief.

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