Smoke Inhalation, Burns, Chemical Exposure And More
Washington State firefighters are members of our community who put their lives, health, and safety on the line every day they go to work. If you’re a firefighter in Washington State, it’s important to know your firefighter benefits and rights to workers’ compensation under State law.
As a firefighter, you not only respond to fires, but you are also called in for land and water rescues, vehicle accidents, emergency medical services, aircraft rescue, and a variety of other industrial and environmental incidents, often involving hazardous materials responses. With continued exposure to a variety of high-risk environments, firefighters can easily sustain a serious workplace injury or develop an occupational illness.
Who Qualifies As A Firefighter?
Firefighters are employed full-time, fully compensated, and can be public or private (if the department includes over 50 firefighters). Firefighters also include fire investigators, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and supervisors.
Firefighters benefit from occupational illness presumptions in Washington State. A presumption is a legal inference that must be made considering certain facts. For example, if you are a firefighter diagnosed with a specified respiratory illness, it will be presumed you acquired this illness on the job. Presumptions are either rebuttable—meaning that they are rejected if proven to be false (or thrown into sufficient doubt by the evidence)—or are conclusive, meaning that they must be accepted to be true.
Firefighter Benefits In Washington State
Washington State is recognized as one of the states with the most proactive laws to protect firefighter benefits that injured and ill firefighters, and their families, deserve. Washington State firefighters receive special protections under the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) that don’t extend to other industries and can make the success of a workers’ compensation L&I claim far more likely. For example, firefighters who have a denied claim can take that claim directly to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (BIIA). This means our team of experienced Seattle L&I attorneys at Emery | Reddy, PLLC can start fighting for your firefighter benefits right away. Washington State is also one of the only states that will reimburse attorney fees if a firefighter wins their appeal.
Firefighters who have been exposed to an undue hazard at the emergency response site can also file a third-party claim, alleging negligence that increased the risk during the response. Common third-party claims for firefighters can include:
- Improper asbestos mediation,
- Harmful or illegal substances that increase the toxicity of smoke, and
- Faulty design or planning.
Third-party claims are instrumental in moving past the workers’ comp and L&I schedules and getting to an insurance policy or tortfeasor—this is sometimes the best way to increase the total award a firefighter may receive following a serious injury.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Washington is one of the few states to recognize the inherent risk in the profession as it relates to occupational illnesses:
“The legislature finds that the employment of firefighters exposes them to smoke, fumes, and toxic or chemical substances. The legislature recognizes that firefighters as a class have a higher rate of respiratory disease than the general public. The legislature therefore finds that respiratory disease should be presumed to be occupationally related for industrial insurance purposes for firefighters.”
Our government has codified the presumption that certain occupational illnesses are connected to a firefighter’s job. Put another way, firefighters automatically receive the assumption under RCW 51.32.185 that the following conditions are connected to the job:
- Respiratory disease
- Heart problems, experienced within 72 hours of exposure to smoke, fumes, or toxic substances, or experienced within 24 hours of strenuous physical exertion due to firefighting activities
- infectious diseases are occupational illnesses under RCW 51.08.140.
Firefighter Hazards In The Workplace
If you’ve experienced one or more of the following hazards or injuries on the job, Washington State law entitles you to medical benefits, time-loss, and vocational rehabilitation services if necessary, alongside a variety of other firefighter benefits:
- Muscle strain: The most common injuries that firefighters suffer are muscle strains and pain from overexertion. This is typically due to the high physical demands placed on firefighters and a lack of time to stretch and warm up before a firefighter needs to act.
- Slip and falls: Firefighters are at high risk for serious slip and falls. The heavy gear and uniforms worn on duty can offset balance and decrease control at impact. These injuries can cause broken bones and serious injuries to the head, back, or spine. Even if you can walk away after your fall, it is always important to see a doctor right away and to tell your doctor that you sustained the injury while at work.
- Medical hazards: Firefighters are often called to the scene of an accident or an event that involves a medical emergency. This results in a higher risk of exposure to bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV. While firefighters and other medical professionals take precautions to prevent transmission, if you are exposed to a bloodborne illness, you deserve compensation for associated medical expenses and changes in lifestyle.
- Respiratory disease: When certain items burn, they can make smoke more toxic to inhale, even with the use of a respirator. Firefighters risk exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals like asbestos. This exposure can cause chronic respiratory conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, and lung cancer.
- Heart strain: Washington State law ensures that if a firefighter experiences any heart problems within 72 hours of exposure to smoke, fumes, or toxic substances on the job, or within 24 hours of strenuous physical exertion related to your job as a firefighter, you are entitled to have all associated medical costs reimbursed.
- Cancer: Firefighters are at a consistently higher risk than the general public of a cancer diagnosis. Some emergencies may also expose first responders to radiation. However, proving that a cancer diagnosis is related to your occupation as a firefighter can require complex documentation spanning years of service. You must meet the following criteria:
- Served at least 10 years before the cancer develops
- Were given a qualifying medical examination that showed no evidence of cancer at the time of hire.
- Vehicle collisions: In the hurry to get to the scene of an emergency, firefighters and other emergency responders are at a higher risk of vehicle collisions. The worst collisions can cause broken bones and internal injuries, but a crash can also exacerbate other injuries sustained on the job.
- Hearing loss: Continuous noise at fire grounds and emergency scenes combined with a greater possibility of experiencing sudden explosions or falling objects can both contribute to occupational hearing loss for firefighters.
- Contact with or being struck by an object: Firefighters are also at risk of being struck by objects while at a fire ground. This can include falling objects as well as stationary machines and other devices that might shift or present a hazard. Pulled muscles, soreness and bruises, lacerations, and broken bones can all result from contact with an object.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD can result from serious trauma in the workplace. In order to qualify for a PTSD presumption, the condition must have manifested after having served at least 10 years with the Department and must meet the American Psychiatric Association DSM 5 diagnostic criteria.
In the midst of dealing with an injury or a serious illness related to your occupation, it can feel overwhelming to start the process of finding legal representation you can trust. But if you’ve been denied compensation that you rightfully deserve, the sooner you find an experienced L&I attorney who is willing to fight for your case, the faster you and your family can receive reimbursement for medical expenses and loss of income. Emery | Reddy has set the standard in winning landmark cases that have increased State protections for workers’ rights and changed Washington State legislation to better serve those who serve our community. A win for your case could lead to changes that make your workplace safer and become a win for another firefighter down the road.
There are a variety of resources of which firefighters can take advantage, some far preceding any official claim.
The Personal Injury-Illness-Exposure Reporting System (PIIERS): PIIERS, sponsored by the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, is a confidential system that any firefighter can use to keep a personal record of injury, illness, and exposure to hazardous chemicals as a result of job-related activities. PIIERS is free for firefighters in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana. Otherwise, the cost is $5 per year.
Healthy in, healthy out: Healthy In, Healthy Out, published by the Washington State Council of Firefighters, seeks to reduce firefighter risk of exposure to carcinogens and other hazards.
Code 4 Northwest: This is a free, confidential crisis and referral hotline run by volunteers for Washington State active and retired first responders and their families. Code 4 Northwest was created to ensure Washington State’s first responders have access to the best help possible when in crisis. They provide support through prevention, education, awareness, and crisis response. Calls are answered by a live person who understands the issues you are confronting, and all call-takers are current or former first responders or work in the public safety/EMS field in Washington State. The 24-hour crisis line is available at 425.243.5092.
Safe Call Now: Safe Call Now is a confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for public safety employees, emergency services personnel, and families nationwide. Safe Call Now is a resource for public safety employees to speak confidentially with officers, former law enforcement officers, public safety professionals, and/or mental healthcare providers who are familiar with your line of work. Call: 206.459.3020.
Firefighter Cancer Support Network: Cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighter health and safety today. The mission of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network is to help fire/EMS members and their families cope with cancer and to provide occupational cancer awareness and prevention training nationwide.
How To File An L&I Claim In Washington State
In order to receive firefighter benefits from L&I there are two very important things that you must do right away, even before a claim is filed:
- Get medical help.
- Tell your employer.
If you are injured at work, you have three options to file a Washington State L&I claim:
- File by phone at 877.561.3453.
- File online through the L&I website’s File Fast tool.
- File at your doctor’s office.
Note that if you work with a self-insured employer, you must file your claim with them.
To file an L&I claim in Washington State, you must provide the following:
- The location where the injury occurred
- Contact information for any witnesses to the injury
- Employer information
- Wage information
- Names and birth dates of your dependents
- If you have already seen a doctor:
- Your doctor’s first and last name
- The hospital or clinic where you received treatment
Your doctor has 5 days to send the report to L&I or your self-insured employer. If you are eligible for time-loss and no further information is needed, L&I or your self-insured employer sends the first benefit check within 14 days of receiving the report. If your doctor is one of the many healthcare providers that do not handle workers’ compensation claim cases, you can find an L&I-approved doctor on the L&I website. If your L&I claim is approved, L&I will cover the initial visit even if it wasn’t with one of their approved doctors.
L&I or your self-insured employer must receive your Report of Accident within 1 year of your injury date to file a claim. Occupational illness claims must be received within two years from the date of your doctor’s diagnosis.
Your L&I Claim Is Worth More If You Also Have An Employment Law Claim
A significant number of L&I workers’ compensation claims often involve additional legal claims such as employment law or third-party claims. Many people file their claims without seeking representation from an L&I attorney and thus never discover that in addition to their L&I claim, they may be missing out on the ability to file an employment law claim or a third-party claim. Pursuing additional legal action has the potential to significantly increase a claim’s overall compensation.
What Is An Employment Law Claim?
Many injured workers find that their employer has taken, or plans to take, adverse action against them because they filed an L&I claim or they are out of work. You can file a lawsuit against your employer for several reasons, including retaliation, wrongful termination, disability discrimination, or unpaid wages. An L&I attorney who is experienced in both L&I workers’ compensation law and employment law can help you with your L&I claim while simultaneously filing a federal or state law claim for the violation of workers’ rights by your employer.
What Is A Third-Party Claim?
A third-party claim is one in which someone other than your employer or co-worker is responsible for your injury. If you have been injured on the job due to someone else’s actions or negligence, you may be entitled to additional compensation through a third-party claim, which combines your L&I claim with a personal injury claim using the same facts.
Unlike workers’ compensation payments, there is no limit to the amount of compensation an injured worker may seek in third-party damages.
Who Is At Fault For A Workplace Injury?
L&I is a no-fault system, ensuring compensation for any workplace injury. However, if a third party is involved in causing the injury, you may be able to pursue legal action against them for additional compensation under third-party claims.
How Do I Know If I Have A Case?
The bottom line is that anyone who isn’t familiar with L&I claims should seek the input of experienced L&I attorneys who are.
After years of helping injured workers, Emery | Reddy has recovered hundreds of millions for our clients. Our team of L&I attorneys is experienced in litigating L&I claims, injury law claims, and employment violations. We understand how to leverage each claim in state (or federal) court and before the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals to maximize the value of all of your claims.
Emery | Reddy Can Help You With Your L&I Claim
Emery | Reddy, PLLC is the only law firm in Washington State that is equipped to provide comprehensive representation on your case from every angle. Our Seattle L&I attorneys thoroughly assess every case to determine if our clients have additional claims, and at times this can extend far beyond the underlying workers’ compensation claim.
If you have been injured in the workplace call Emery | Reddy today to speak with our legal team for a free case review. Please remember to have your L&I claim number readily available.
Want More Information?
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The L&I workers’ compensation process is anything but straightforward. Find out the answers to your L&I workers’ comp questions today.
To determine the value of your L&I award, you first need to understand the different types of workers’ compensation offered in Washington State.
Meet The Team
The L&I attorneys at Emery | Reddy are passionate about helping workers with L&I claims and employment law issues. We Help Workers®: it’s our motto and it’s what drives us every day.
We know how L&I and big companies think, and we understand the tactics they use. Our labor and industries attorneys use that knowledge coupled with over two decades of experience to help our clients get access to the L&I benefits to which they are legally entitled and hold employers accountable when they break the law.
If you’re struggling with an L&I claim, injury, or legal issue at work, please call us and see how Emery | Reddy can help you today.