3 Winnipeg firefighters who died of cancer honoured at National Day of Mourning

The sergeant-at-arms lowered the flags outside Winnipeg city hall to half-mast as part of a ceremony to mark the National Day of Mourning for workers who were killed or suffered illnesses due to their jobs.

The city added the names of three retired firefighters who died in the last year to its memorial board. Henry Giesbrecht, Jerome Guenther and Albert Zembik all died from cancer, which the Workers Compensation Board has recognized as posing a higher risk to firefighters.

“These men made an unforgettable contribution to our community and they will not be forgotten,” Mayor Scott Gillingham said during the event, in the courtyard outside city hall.

Gillingham choked up as he shared the story of his brother, a Manitoba Hydro lineman who was killed in a workplace accident in 1998.

“That’s why I feel so strongly about the need to be vigilant and to keep improving workplace safety,” he said, adding that he’s encouraged by the fact that the City of Winnipeg is now certified by SAFE Work Manitoba, a public agency that works to prevent workplace injury and illness.

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Tom Bilous said cancers related to firefighting have increased in recent years, due to the introduction of new plastics and building materials.

“Unfortunately our gear, as good as it protects us from radiant heat, it has to breathe so we don’t overheat, and so we absorb those chemicals,” he said in an interview.

Manufacturers are working to improve protective gear to keep those chemicals out, but nothing has yet become available on the market, Bilous said.

“With new plastics, we need new turnout gear, so until that changes all we can do is decontaminate, practise our occupational hygiene as best we can and minimize exposures every step that we can.”

Others at the event spoke about the increasing mental toll front-line workers are dealing with due to issues like poverty, addictions and homelessness.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 500 president Chris Scott said bus drivers are bearing the brunt of those challenges.

“As public-facing professionals and transit workers, we become easy targets for acts of violence stemming from these issues,” he said.

A Winnipeg Transit driver, Jubal Fraser, died after being stabbed by a passenger in 2017.

A crowd of people are in a park holding signs, with names and a picture of a candle printed on them. They are standing behind a man who is speaking.
People held signs bearing the names of those who died due to work-related injury or illness. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

More than 1,000 people in Canada lose their lives due to workplace injury or illness every year, including 22 Manitobans in 2022, the Manitoba Federation of Labour said.

Other events were planned for the day, including a gathering in Memorial Park. 

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