On a recent Monday, an anhydrous ammonia pipeline leaked near Tekamah in rural northeast Nebraska, leading to one fatality. When such accidents in happen in rural Nebraska, the first responders are usually volunteers.
Nebraska has extended workers’ compensation protections to volunteer firefighters and EMTs by statute. Volunteer first responders also have the same coverage for mental-mental injuries that other first responders have. Even though volunteer firefighters are not usually paid a wage, they can collect disability benefits based on the higher amount of two-thirds their regular wage or the state maximum benefit rate. In 2016, the maximum workers’ compensation rate was $785 per week.
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s volunteer first responders also share the same exclusions from workers’ compensation as professional first responders. Foremost among these exclusions is the exclusion for occupational diseases that Brody Ockander wrote about here last month. In short, if an occupational disease manifests itself after a volunteer first responder retires for reasons not related to the occupational disease, the worker or the worker’s survivors could be excluded from receiving workers’ compensation indemnity benefits.
This exclusion is troublesome because of the regularity that volunteer first responders have to respond to chemical explosions and leaks. These chemicals cause symptoms that might not manifest for years. Last week, in addition to the chemical leak in Tekamah, Nebraska, there was a chemical spill at a grain processing plant in rural Atchison, Kansas, that led to 125 people being treated for chemical inhalation. Nebraska has had fertilizer plant explosions in 2012 and in 2014.
Fertilizer plant explosions are not uncommon in rural America. In 2013, a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, killed 12 first responders and wounded 200 in a town of 2,800. In addition to physical injuries, such devastation can also lead to mental injuries, which is in part why Nebraska expanded so-called “mental-mental” benefits to first responders. However, mental injuries like chemical exposure injuries may have delayed symptoms. I would encourage the Nebraska Legislature to amend court decisions on occupational diseases that would exclude the injuries of volunteer first responders.