Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Firefighter cancer on the rise

By Larry Thomas, Samar Al-Hajj, Len Garis and Ian Pike   

Features Health and Wellness firefighter cancer

Health claims data highlights cancer and mental health risks

Photo credit: The Palmer/Getty Images

Cancer continues to be the biggest killer of Canadian firefighters while mental health issues are spiking upwards, according to a new study of health insurance claims.

Released in April 2024 by the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU), the report Firefighter Occupational Injuries and Fatalities: Analysis of Accepted Claims, 2007-2021 reviewed 15 years of claims data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) and WorkSafeBC (WSBC) to identify the causes of deaths and injuries among Canadian firefighters.

In line with previous research, the report pinpoints cancer as the leading cause of firefighter death, making up almost 85 per cent of claims from 2007 to 2021 – nearly double the 43 per cent rate for the general population. Also worth noting is the continuing rise in firefighter mental health time-loss claims over the 15 years, sharply increasing in 2015. Longer-serving members are more at risk; death claims were highest for those age 65 and up, while both mental health time-loss claims and total injury claims were highest for those in their 40s to mid-50s.

“We have seen some changes to policy, practice and equipment over the years to reduce the cancer risk for firefighters and support their mental health, but this new research shows that more must be done to protect their health and wellbeing,” said Brian Godlonton, B.C.’s Fire Commissioner. “It’s important that we continue to analyze firefighter health data to track new trends and respond appropriately, aiming to ensure that firefighters have the protection they require.”

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Occupational injuries and deaths pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of firefighters in Canada and around the world. The risk factors are many, including disease related to exposure to toxins, injuries from physical strain or slips and falls, and mental health issues exacerbated by chronic stress and sleep disorders.

During the study timeframe, there were 1,509 deaths – about 100 per year – and 27,990 injuries among Canadian firefighters leading to claims.

In total, the BCIRPU report examined 29,499 claims from 2007 to 2021 to understand the patterns of injuries and fatalities among firefighters, building on an earlier analysis of AWCBC and WSBC claims from 2006 to 2018.

The authors brought public safety, health and injury research backgrounds to the project: Larry Thomas, Fire Chief for the City of Surrey, B.C.; Samar Al-Hajj, assistant research professor at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon; Len Garis, associate scientist emeritus with the BCIRPU; and Ian Pike, professor of pediatrics at UBC and past director of the BCIRPU.

Key findings related to firefighter fatalities from 2007 to 2021 include:

  • Cancer comprised 85 per cent of all death claims, with a noticeable upward trend in total claims from 2007 to 2021, peaking in 2020. Incidences in the category of “malignant neoplasms and tumours (cancers, carcinomas, sarcomas)” rose from 53 in 2007 to 94 in 2021, with a peak of 126 in 2020.
  • After cancer, the next most common causes of death were traumatic injury (6.5 per cent of claims), cardiovascular system diseases such as heart attack or stroke (4.2 per cent) and respiratory system disease such as emphysema (2.6 per cent).
  • Firefighters aged 65 and up made up 54.7 per cent of all fatality claims.
  • Ontario, the most populous province, led in fatality claims with a total of 654 – four times as many as Alberta, which had the second highest count of 165 claims. B.C. followed with 135 claims and Quebec had the least with 108 claims.

“Anyone in the fire service for any length of time has attended far too many funerals of colleagues taken out by cancer,” said Dan Derby, President of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. “These losses are devastating, and the continuing increase in mental health issues is also concerning. Decision-makers at all levels need to pay attention to what this data is telling us about the health and safety of our long-serving members and all firefighters.”

Key findings related to time-loss injuries over the study period include:

  • Almost 62 per cent of injuries were sustained by firefighters between ages 30 and 54, with 16.2 per cent of claims for ages 40 to 44 and 15.79 per cent for ages 45 to 49.
  • Traumatic injury accounted for 80.6 per cent of time-loss claims.
  • Mental health was the second highest time-loss category with 5.9 per cent of claims, followed by cancers at 2.54 per cent. This represented a 231 per cent increase since the study of 2006 to 2018 claims.
  • The 45 to 49 age bracket had the highest number of mental health claims, followed closely by the 40 to 44 and 50 to 54 age groups.
  • There was a gradual increase in mental health claims from 2007 to 2015, followed by a sharp upward surge from 2016 to 2021.
  • While there was a noticeable upward trend in mental health claims in all provinces, Alberta and Quebec trended lower than Ontario and B.C.

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Pointing to the escalation of mental health concerns as firefighters grow older and gain seniority, the study authors called out a pressing need for comprehensive strategies to address the mental well-being of firefighters.

The authors also noted a need for a surveillance model to fully and accurately capture all Canadian firefighter deaths and injuries, which may not be fully represented by health insurance claim data.

‘There’s no question firefighting has always been a dangerous job. Still, many of the injuries and deaths we see today are preventable or could be reduced with targeted support and programs,” said Todd Schierling, President of the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Association. “We need to step up for our firefighters just like they step up for their communities every day.”

 

The report Firefighter Occupational Injuries and Fatalities: Analysis of Accepted Claims, 2007-2021 is available for free download at http://hdl.handle.net/2429/88243

Larry Thomas is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey B.C. and an Executive Chief Fire Officer, ECFO and Chartered Manager, C. Mgr. He has a background in Science from Simon Fraser University and Economics from Douglas College.

Samar Al-Hajj is an Assistant Research Professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB); Founding Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program for Advanced Injury Research (MENA PAIR); Adjunct Investigator at the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit.

Len Garis is retired Fire Chief for the City of Surrey, British Columbia, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture , Media and Society at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), a member of the Affiliated Research Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, a faculty member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University, and Associate Scientist Emeritus – BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit .

Ian Pike is Professor of Pediatrics at UBC; Investigator and Co-Lead of the Evidence to Innovation Research Theme at the Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital; Investigator and past Director of the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit, and Co-executive Director, The Community Against Preventable Injuries.


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