(HELENA) A bill that would increase protections for firefighters who develop cancer or other illnesses after their time on the job has cleared its last legislative hurdle.
The Montana Senate voted 40-10 Saturday to approve an amended version of Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Nate McConnell of Missoula. The House passed the latest version of the bill 89-8 last week. It will now go to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.
“Today was a very big day for our membership statewide,” said Joel Fassbinder, a Bozeman firefighter and president of the Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters.
SB 160 would let firefighters who have served for a certain number of years claim workers’ compensation benefits for several types of cancer, heart attacks and asbestos-related illnesses.
“We’re looking at these as on-the-job injuries, similar to a firefighter falling off a roof,” Fassbinder said. “It’s no different if a firefighter develops cancer on the job.”
Advocates say firefighters are at greater risk for these types of illnesses because of the types of substances they are exposed to in their work. Fassbinder said many items in homes and other structures release hazardous chemicals when they burn.
“While we do have the best equipment and gear available on the market, there’s no way yet to protect ourselves from absorbing these chemicals through our skin,” he said.
Firefighters’ advocates have been lobbying for about 20 years to establish this type of coverage. As of the start of the year, they said Montana was among just four U.S. states that hadn’t already recognized cancer as a job-related illness for firefighters. Fassbinder said several other states are also currently considering adding protections.
In order to qualify for workers’ compensation on job-related illnesses, firefighters will have to get periodic medical exams, and they cannot be regular tobacco users. Insurers will also be able to challenge whether an illness is connected to firefighting work.
Fassbinder said his group wasn’t happy with some of the amendments added to SB 160, including the removal of post-traumatic stress disorder from the list of covered conditions. But he said the bill is an important first step.
“We’re certainly excited to get our foot in the door and get some protections coming for those that protect our communities,” he said.
He thanked McConnell for carrying the bill, and everyone else who has supported the effort over the years. He said personal stories from firefighters had been particularly important. That includes Great Falls Fire-Rescue firefighter Jason Baker, who was a prominent advocate for increased coverage before he lost a battle with lung cancer earlier this year.
“It is real people,” said Fassbinder. “It’s your neighbors.”
Bullock has been strongly in support of passing a bill on firefighter health. Fassbinder said he expects firefighters to take part in a signing ceremony with the governor in the coming days in Helena.