Protect those who protect New Jerseyans: Opinion - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Protect those who protect New Jerseyans: Opinion


Every day, law enforcement officers, firefighters, nurses and EMS personnel provide emergency medical care and rescue operations for our neighbors and families, often risking their own health and safety. Unfortunately, too little is done to protect the very people who protect us.

Whether a fire, a chemical explosion, a train derailment or a major terrorist event, emergency responders are there for us. Some of these tragedies happen close to our own homes, some are far away. In every case firefighters, police, nurses and other emergency responders rush in when we are all running out.

Too often, firefighters and other first responders have little knowledge of the identity of the materials they are exposed to or their hazards. Nevertheless, they respond to the scene to save lives and protect property without regard to the health risks.

As we’ve seen from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other catastrophic incidents, police, nurses and other emergency responders can and do suffer great harm and serious illness or injury in their work. Who is there to protect them?

Not the workers’ compensation system, which instead forces first responders to fight long legal battles to prove the link between their illness and their exposures to toxic substances.

In June, the New Jersey Legislature, led by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union), passed legislation to fix the workers’ compensation system for first responders — to make sure we are there for first responders and their families when they need us the most.

The act ensures that workers’ compensation coverage for public safety workers is provided without long, costly legal battles.

The legislation, (S1778/A1196) called the Thomas P. Canzanella 21st Century First Responders Protection Act, ensures that workers’ compensation coverage for public safety workers is provided without long, costly legal battles, easing the burden of proof that now exists. It is still waiting for Gov. Chris Christie’s signature or veto, with a deadline approaching as early as this Thursday.

This bill makes sure that workers’ compensation coverage is available for a death or disability that arises from exposure to hazardous chemicals in response to a terrorist attack, epidemic or other catastrophic emergency. It also shifts the burden of proof for firefighters on the job more than five years due to their chronic exposure to carcinogens.

Research has conclusively demonstrated that firefighters have an increased incidence of leukemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder cancer and brain cancer compared with other workers. Additional research indicates that firefighters are at increased risk for prostate, large intestine and skin cancers.

Along with law enforcement officers, firefighters and first aid personnel who respond to emergent situations, nurses and EMS personnel provide emergency medical care during a public health crisis. Several New Jersey hospitals received “First Responder” status in the wake of 9/11, and nurses are often not only part of the teams responding to emergent situations, but also provide direct patient care in our emergency departments to victims of catastrophic incidents and are therefore vulnerable to exposure from chemicals or toxic substances.

Many states already provide this protection for public safety workers, who accept the risks of their work and only want their families to be protected from economic ruin. With more than 3,000 facilities that store or use hazardous substances in the state, New Jersey has even more reason to provide every protection possible for those who risk their lives for our safety.

New Jersey should set the standard for protecting public safety workers who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our communities.

When a public safety worker loses their life or contracts an occupational disease in the performance of their duty they and their families should not be forgotten.

By Dominick Marino, 
Ann Twomey and Ed Brannigan

Dominick Marino is president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey. Ann Twomey is president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees. Ed Brannigan is president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police.