Proposed legislation to recognize cancer as a workplace hazard for firefighters isn’t necessary.
This is in response to the op-ed by Rep. Steve Butterfield and Sen. Phil Bartlett that appeared in the Sun Journal on April 26. Their column was responding to an April 13 editorial regarding proposed legislation to provide firefighters with a special Workers Compensation benefit.
The original editorial rightly called for the defeat of the legislation, which presumes that firefighters with cancer are afflicted with the disease because of their work. It would then be a municipality’s responsibility to somehow show that firefighting did not play a role.
In their own way, the legislators highlighted some of the biggest flaws with the bill in their column.
First, the legislators argue that this bill “simply recognizes cancer as a workplace hazard.” This is patently deceptive. Maine law already recognizes cancer as an “occupational disease.” Anyone suffering cancer may file a Workers Compensation case and allege that the cancer was the result of workplace exposure.
More important, 25 years ago, the Legislature gave firefighters a special waiver of the three-year statute of limitations that otherwise applies to occupational disease claims for firefighters who want to claim they have cancer as a result of work. Maine law clearly “recognizes” cancer as a workplace hazard for firefighters.
Second, the legislators said that the legislative committee reviewing the bill received a “host of exhaustive studies” that established a link between firefighting and cancer. The committee actually received a single “meta-study” that attempted to summarize other existing studies. That single meta-study concluded that three or possibly four cancers are linked to firefighting, and that for many cancers, such as kidney cancer, the link is “unlikely.” The amended bill still provides a presumption for kidney cancer. It also provides a presumption for several other cancers for which their own research determined that the link is only “possible.”
Finally, this meta-study that purports to establish a link between firefighting and cancer also points to links between cancer and exposure to pesticides, herbicides, engine exhaust, paints, organic solvents, metallic dusts and metal-working fluids. However, the sponsors’ bill does not provide a special cancer presumption for farm workers, automotive technicians, employees in the semiconductor industry, painters, toll collectors or others with work-based exposure to carcinogens.
The legislators asserted the committee has not received any information from opponents of the bill regarding costs. That is not quite true.
In California, where this benefit has been in place for almost 20 years, there is a track record of this special benefit costing employers and their property taxpayers millions. This information has been provided to the full Legislature and the legislative office responsible for determining costs.
A letter to the editor on this issue that appeared April 17 from Rick Cailler of the Lewiston Firefighters Association said, “Shouldn’t the firefighters and their families have a safety net if the firefighters unfortunately contract a disease that can be proven to have been related to their service?” Of course they should; but that protection is available today. Firefighters are allowed to “prove” their disease if work-related.
However, if it can be “proven,” they don’t need this bill.
The legislators concluded their column with “We owe [firefighters] our gratitude. We owe them this law.”
However, neither Butterfield nor Bartlett has suggested the state pay for their legislation. They seek the credit for passing the law, but the costs will be shifted to local taxpayers. If the Legislature feels that they owe firefighters this law, then the state should pay for it.
This is just what the Legislature did in 2005. That year, the firefighters lobbied and received a state subsidy for their health insurance so that they can retire early. This benefit, also provided to police officers, has caused a $20 million unfunded actuarial liability on the state’s books.
Firefighters perform a crucial and dangerous task. Municipal officials appreciate their hard work and dedication. This bill is not about whether firefighters should be appreciated. The bill provides a special benefit to a group of public employees that will have to be funded by taxpayers. The scientific research suggesting that firefighting contributes to cancer, the scientific research to the contrary, the workplace exposure of an individual firefighter, and particular evidence regarding the lifestyle and family history of an individual firefighter are all complex issues that vary case by case.
A single legislatively established presumption for all firefighters — and no other Mainers who have workplace exposure to carcinogens — is bad policy. Municipal officials object.

Jeffrey Austin is a legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association.
E-mail: [email protected]


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