WorkSafe Saskatchewan aims to drive down firefighter cancer rates with new campaign

PAFD firefighter Justin Jonasson completes the Fire Ground Survival training on Thursday (Kelly Skjerven/Daily Herald)

On Monday WorkSafe Saskatchewan (the partnership between the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) and the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety) announced a new video resource series to help firefighters better protect themselves from incidents and exposures on the job.

The WCB says Firefighter cancer is the second leading cause of work-related occupational disease deaths in Saskatchewan. From 2010 to 2018, 23 per cent of work-related occupational disease fatalities in Saskatchewan were from firefighter cancers and in 2020, five firefighters lost their lives to cancer.

In a morning, virtual press conference, the WCB announced the series of videos to help raise awareness on the cause.

Firefighter cancer is the second leading cause of occupational disease deaths in Saskatchewan. That is totally unacceptable,” said Don Morgan, Minister Responsible for the Saskatchewan Workman’s Compensation Board.

WCB vice-president of prevention and employer safety Kevin Mooney said improving firefighter cancer prevention is one of the top priorities in WorkSafe Saskatchewan’s Fatalities and Serious Injuries Strategy. They launched the strategy in 2019 and began working with industry experts on a new safe work practices video series.

We didn’t have any experience in tackling this,” Mooney said. “We had to find the right partners and the right expertise and engage our stakeholders like we never have before.”

Both rural and urban fire departments helped with the development. The videos focus on how to prevent exposure to toxins on the job, which prevents firefighter cancer.

Mooney said Saskatchewan’s legislation means an expanded list of cancers are covered by the WCB. However, they’re hoping to teach best practices to serious illnesses like cancer never even develop.

Developed in conjunction with Jim Burneka and the Firefighter Cancer Consultants, these 31 videos showcase the best practices recommended for fire departments after an audit of several professional and volunteer fire departments in 2019.

Mike Kwasnica, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Fire Chiefs and Humboldt Fire Chief described the work on the videos as incredible.

Jim’s talent that he brought, and working with WCB to bring the importance of Firefighter Cancer, is so important to all of the departments, whether they are the smallest volunteer or the biggest career departments,” Kwasnica said. “Seeing that we have the backing of the province is incredible as well.

Now it is time for us to do our part. We can use these training videos that were developed by WCB and the partnership and use these for all of the departments to learn how to be safe and make sure that our firefighters go home at the end of the day.

Kwasnica added that regular checkups are an important part of eliminating firefighter cancer. However, he said that’s not the only prevention measure that’s needed.

He’s hopeful they will help firefighters continue to work at a high standard.

We all have an important job to do,” Kwasnica said. “It’s important for us to be able to do the things that we have to do to protect ourselves in our everyday work that we do.”

Other speakers at Monday’s virtual event include Doug Lapchuk, president of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association and fire chief in Balgonie, Layne Jackson of the Regina Fire Department and Lloyd Zwack, president of the Saskatchewan Firefighters Association.

Nikkii McClelland knows the dangers of toxic exposures on the job. Her husband, Darren McClelland, who was the former fire chief in Swift Current, passed away from work-related colon cancer in 2020.

He was diagnosed with cancer three and a half years earlier. By that time the cancer had already spread to his liver. Darren began chemotherapy and underwent multiple surgeries over the next few years. Their daughters were 19 and 16 at the time. During her presentation, McLelland became emotional.

We tried everything. He was a trooper. He was a fighter,” McClelland said. “He was always game to do something to save his life.”

In December 2019, Darren’s doctors discovered a tumour in his back that caused him so much pain that he couldn’t walk. By mid-January, he turned jaundice and on Jan. 20, 2020 at the age of 48, Darren passed away.

There was just no way I couldn’t see anything but having a long life together,” McClelland said.

We’re all grieving in our own ways. I’m grieving because I lost my husband. I lost my best friend. The girls are grieving because they lost their hero. They’ve lost their mentor.”

McClelland is sharing her story to raise awareness and to help prevent other firefighters from being diagnosed and passing away from cancer because of jobsite exposures.

Every fire department needs to be on board with better gear, better oxygen masks, anything on how to keep those chemicals out of your system. Don’t say it won’t happen to me, (and) it’s going to be OK because it can change your life in an instant,” said McClelland. “I don’t want anybody lying in bed scared to death to go to sleep because you just don’t know if you’re going to wake up in the morning. I don’t want anybody to live this life that me and my girls have to live.”

In the spring of 2020, WorkSafe Saskatchewan conducted a survey with 141 Saskatchewan firefighters. The survey focused on 26 firefighter cancer prevention items and found multiple gaps in the firefighter cancer preventive measures. The video series was created to fill in the gaps and reinforce preventive measures.

Firefighters can reduce the chance of cancer by properly wearing and cleaning all safety equipment, cleaning the inside of vehicles between calls, disposing contaminants quickly and safely, taking a shower as soon as possible after a fire and conducting annual medical and skin exams.