Most workers who are injured on the job are eligible for workers’ compensation coverage if their injury is deemed to have arisen out of and occurred in the course of employment. The compensability of occupational diseases (e.g., cancer) is often more difficult to determine than that of acute injuries (e.g., a severed limb) because of the long latency period and murky causality associated with most diseases.
Alberta has identified a schedule of diseases that are deemed automatically compensable if a worker has had significant occupational exposure (Schedule B of the Workers’ Compensation Regulation). Occupational cancer is of specific concern to workers, with the Auditor General noting that the Alberta Cancer Board believes that as many as 760 of the 5,700 new cancer cases identified each year (13.3%) were work-related. Yet, in 2008, only 31 new cancer-related claims were recorded by the WCB.
To its credit, Alberta has specified a list of cancers among firefighters that are deemed automatically compensable. And, on May 14, Alberta announced it would increase the types of firefighter cancers deemed automatically compensable from 8 to 10. This is clearly a good news story for firefighters with cancer, but the announcement can stand some unpacking.
Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk noted “If (firefighters) have the science to show me that other cancers also fall into the category where the rate of incidence is identifiably higher than others, I'm always willing to look at them. But the science has to be there."
This statement sounds quite reasonable: prove the occupational link and we’ll deem it covered. But consider what this means practically: the government intends to delay acknowledging further forms of cancer are presumed work-related until so many firefighters have died from a form of cancer that the causation is irrefutable. Until then, firefighters with cancer must go through the difficult and stressful process of determining compensability.
The Minister’s statement also ignores that proving causation is very difficult. There are more than 70,000 chemical substances in use in North America. Another 800 substances are introduced each year. There is no toxicity data available for 80% of these substances and the data for many of them is highly questionable. Further, demonstrating (or even recognizing) causation is very difficult due to the long latency period and murky causality of many diseases and the (understandable) focus of doctors on treatment, rather than sussing out occupational contributions.
The Minister’s statement further ignores the state’s role in causing occupational diseases. There is no legal obligation on manufacturers or employers to determine the hazardous properties of products before introducing them into the workplace. Consequently, workers are often the first humans to experience prolonged and significant exposure to these substances. This is a policy choice by government that prioritizes the right of manufacturers to create and employers to use substances over the right of workers to know about their hazardous effects.
Finally, while firefighters with some forms of cancer have gained an even greater degree of automatic compensation, there has been little effort focused on addressing other groups who routinely find themselves exposed to hazardous chemicals in the workplace, such as cleaners and healthcare workers. Perhaps the clarity of the firefighter data or the nobility of firefighting accounts for their preferential treatment. But it should not be lost on us that the majority of firefighters are white men and the majority of cleaners and healthcare workers are women and, often, minorities.
-- Bob Barnetson