Wildland firefighters call on Ontario to recognize risks of toxin exposure

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Noah Freedman recently revised the wildland firefighter training manual to prepare for his ninth fire season.

He is vice-president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 703 and a wildfire team leader with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNR).

“I am surprised and reminded that our employer does not provide any training on the dangers associated with exposure to wildfire smoke,” he said.

“They still advise firefighters to cover their faces with a dry cloth, even though this has been shown to be an ineffective way to protect themselves from toxic or chemical emissions.”

Last week, a joint health and safety committee with the MNR recommended that the government do more to inform, educate and protect wildland firefighters from exposure to cancer toxins.

The paper cites a growing body of evidence suggesting that firefighters are more likely to develop cancer than the average worker.

A firefighter carries equipment through a blackened forest.
Wildland firefighters are exposed to toxins in their workplace and do not have adequate personal protective equipment, according to the recommendation of the joint health and safety committee. (Frontenac Sud fire and rescue/Facebook)

Freedman said wildland firefighters can’t properly consent to do their jobs if employers don’t inform them of the risks.

“Some people might not want to continue doing their job or might not accept it, and that’s their right,” he said.

Not eligible for work benefits in the event of illness

Unlike urban firefighters, wildland firefighters do not have access to compensation or work support if they develop serious illnesses, such as certain types of cancer, in the long term.

Keesha Bell, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), said wildland firefighters could be eligible for certain policies if the government calls them to work in an emergency situation, but not in the course of their regular employment with the Ministry of Natural Resources.

“Any changes to who is covered by the WSIB would come from the government,” she said.

In all but four jurisdictions in Canada, forest firefighters are excluded from the legislation presumptions granted to construction firefighters, who respond to fires inside buildings, as well as to fire alarms, chemical spills and accidents.

For Freedman, the problem boils down to the government not recognizing wildland firefighters as firefighters.

“We need to be reclassified, and it’s really shocking the amount of pushback we’ve received on this from the Ontario government,” he said.

“We’re not entitled to any job benefits, and in reality, they’re not benefits: it’s a human rights issue,” Freedman said.

The joint health and safety committee’s recommendation also calls on the government to make improvements to the personal protective equipment (PPE) it provides to wildland firefighters.

He asks the MRN to provide a response to his recommendations by February 15.

The ministry did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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