Since 1993, the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Act (O.R.C. §4123), has provided firefighters and police officers additional workers’ compensation benefits. Specifically, it is presumed that firefighters and police officers who suffer from cardiovascular, pulmonary, or respiratory disease after being exposed to heat, smoke, toxic gases, chemical fumes and other toxic substances during the course of their employment, obtained it through the course of and arising out of their employment. Additionally, this section expands the traditional two year workers’ compensation statute of limitations to eight years.
On January 4, 2017, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed the Michael Louis Palumbo, Jr. Act (Ohio Senate Bill 47), renamed after Michael Palumbo, a captain with the Willowick Fire Department who battled with brain cancer after 25 years of service. The Act expands the protections given to firefighters under O.R.C. §4123.68 by adding certain cancers to the list of presumed occupational diseases to firefighters – thus a firefighter who is disabled due to certain cancers will be presumed to have contracted that disease during the course of and arising out of his or her employment as a firefighter.
However, this Act includes specific parameters that must be met to fall under this presumption:
- The firefighter must be disabled as a result of cancer
- The firefighter must have had at least six years on hazardous duty (as defined in 5 C.F.R. 550.902: a “duty performed under circumstances in which an accident could result in serious injury or death, such as duty performed on a high structure where protective facilities are not used or on an open structure where adverse conditions such as darkness, lightning, steady rain, or high wind velocity exist”)
As this is a presumption, it may be rebutted with evidence showing the firefighter:
- Contracted this type of cancer before joining the fire department
- Has exposure, outside of the scope of their official duties, to tobacco products, or other conditions that would indicate an extremely high risk of that cancer, and that was probably a significant factor in the cause or progression of the cancer
- Was not exposed to a qualifying cancer
- Is over 70 years old
- Has not been assigned to hazardous duty in more than twenty years
Theoretically, a firefighter who has not worked in 20 years could possibly bring a workers’ compensation claim as long as they had at least six years of hazardous duty. It is important for employers to thoroughly document all workplace related injuries and exposure to harmful chemicals or toxins.