Fallen firefighter’s story highlights chemical fears

Bill banning flame retardants vetoed by Baker and has been refiled

SUE PIPITONE WAS A PIONEER. The Everett Fire Department’s first and only active-duty female firefighter, she was known to drive Engine 1 “like a boss.” She enjoyed being “one of the boys” in the department, but young girls who visited the fire station were excited to see her because she was one of them. She also attracted attention away from the station. Her nickname was Queen Crunkie and on her days off she was the drummer in a band called Cry Uncle. 

Sadly, her life came to an end August 1, 2018 at the age of 56. Pipitone died from a form of cancer that has been linked to chemicals she was exposed to early in her 25-year career. The toxins, most of them used as flame retardants, eventually catalyzed the cancer that claimed her life. 

Pipitone was one of 10 firefighters in Massachusetts who died last year under similar circumstances, according to an annual study released jointly on Friday by the advocacy group Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety (MassCOSH) and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. 

Darlene Braley, Pipitone’s wife of 18 years, said that back when Pipitone started working as a firefighter almost three decades ago, people weren’t as aware of the risks posed by smoke. She really was concerned about the horrible smoke she breathed and even commented on how it was bad when they trained years ago,” Braley said. 

A bill banning flame retardants in some products passed the Legislature last session, but Gov. Charlie Baker declined to sign it in January. In a message to the Legislature, he said the bill would have given manufacturers only six months to comply, which could lead to product supply disruptions. He also said the bill would make Massachusetts the only state in the nation to ban flame retardants in car seats and non-foam parts of mattresses, which are already subject to federal flammability standards. 

Braley said she hopes the bill will pass this year. “Firefighters shouldn’t have to deal with things that are known to be hazardous and cause cancer,” she said in an interview. 

Pipitone’s death last August came just a week after Baker signed into law legislation that made occupational cancer a line-of-duty injury, allowing firefighters to receive pay while off the job.  

“Firefighters are actually 9 percent more likely to get diagnosed with cancer than the average person,” Braley said, referring to a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.  

According to the MassCOSH/AFL-CIO study, the total number of workplace deaths in Massachusetts declined slightly between 2017 and 2018 from 74 to 69. Fatal injuries at work killed 59 people, and an additional 10 firefighters, including Pipitone, died of work-related diseases like cancer. 

The report from MassCOSH notes the state’s current budget funds the purchase of equipment to clean firefighter gear and reduce the risk of cancer. Everett’s fire department already has equipment to clean off fire gear.  

The number of on-the-job violence-related deaths nearly doubled from 2017, rising to nine. The victims include Sgts. Sean Gannon of Yarmouth and Michael Chesna of Weymouth, both shot and killed in the line of duty last year. Other workers were killed by assailants during robberies and by co-workers. There have been 35 deaths related to workplace violence in Massachusetts since 2011.  

MassCOSH

There is no federal workplace violence prevention standard, according to MassCOSH, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cites employers for failing to protect employees from incidents of violence while on the job.  

MassCOSH and the Massachusetts Nurses Association hope Massachusetts will develop more standards to address workplace violence, as California and Oregon have done. A solution being proposed by the nurses association is a bill that would require health care employers to perform annual safety risk assessments, and develop and implement programs to minimize the danger of workplace violence for health care workers assaulted on the job.   

Advocates say healthcare facilities are particularly prone to violence by patients, relatives, and visitors, with 70 percent of hospital emergency department nurses reporting being assaulted during their careers in a nurses association survey cited in the study.  

“Health care professionals are being assaulted at a rate of four times greater than those working in any other industry,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the nurses’ association. “Fear of violence and actual violence is rampant in Massachusetts healthcare facilities. An assault on a nurse is a serious action and should be taken seriously by our judicial system.”  

Deaths involving motor vehicles at the workplace continue to be a large percent of fatalities at 29 percent, with 36 percent of those being in the construction industry.  

In 2018, OSHA identified 293 violations of workplace safety laws, and issued citations of $30,000 or more to 62 companies. Some of those included companies that had workers endure violent deaths. Air-Draulic Engineering Co., Inc., faced over $23,000 in initial penalties after a worker in Randolph was electrocuted to death by a welding machine. The OSHA investigation remains open and ongoing.

About 90 percent of those 293 violations were either serious offenses, or repeated. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The number of OSHA inspectors is at a historic low, partially due to federal budget cuts, with 875 inspectors nationwide as of January 1, 2019, and only 30 in Massachusetts.