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Penny Wright's Firefighters Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 17 Sep 2011

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (12:32):

I am pleased to rise to acknowledge the tabling of this final report of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee into my Greens colleague Adam Bandt's Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011, which was co-sponsored by Russell Broadbent MP and Maria Vamvakinou MP. The report is the culmination of a great deal of hard work by the committee and it was a very positive experience to participate as a full member of the committee, being relatively new to the Senate. I have been impressed with the thorough process I have observed, overseen by the staff of the secretariat. I thank them for their work.

I would also acknowledge the extensive work of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, which enabled site visits so that the committee could experience some of the work conditions of firefighters firsthand. I say 'some' advisedly because of course there is no real way we can experience the work conditions that firefighters face on a daily basis in protecting life and property on behalf of the Australian community, but it did give us some insight into what some of those conditions would be like.

The process involved obtaining detailed information from local and international witnesses who have particular areas of expertise, such as in relation to personal protective equipment, the chemicals in the environment to which firefighters are exposed on a regular basis, international legal trends and the extensive studies that have demonstrated conclusively that there is a direct causal link between exposure to toxins and carcinogens in their work environment and the contraction by firefighters of certain cancers.

When the committee had the opportunity to experience firsthand some of the hazards encountered by firefighters in the form of flames and smoke, it brought home to me the degree to which firefighters, by the very nature of their job, are exposed to conditions over which they have almost no control and about which they have very little information before they enter the premises to deal with the fire or the hazard. One of the things that I think the committee members all learnt was the degree of speed required and the lack of time that is available to assess the risks of a situation, which in the normal course of occupational health and safety would be one of the first steps taken by any responsible employer. But the nature of the beast in firefighting, I very clearly came to understand, is that time is of the essence. If the reaction is not speedy enough, it is difficult to get the fire under control and the point of no return is reached. So firefighters do not have the luxury that many other employees might have of assessing the risks of the situation and doing what is necessary before they enter. In a sense, they are totally vulnerable to what the situation affords them.

A final aspect of the inquiry which I felt was equally valuable—and I think it has already been acknowledged by my colleagues—was the personal eyewitness accounts, from those firefighters and their families who have contracted cancer, of the devastating impact of their illnesses on their health, obviously, but also on their sense of wellbeing. It became very clear to me in the last committee hearing, when we heard from firefighters and their families, that contracting cancer had affected their sense of identity as strong, healthy, independent providers for their families. As we know, the level of health and fitness that is required of people entering into firefighting service is higher than you would expect in the ordinary population. It was brought home to me the degree to which those people take pride in that part of their identity and who they are. Contracting an illness like a cancer fundamentally erodes that sense of who they are and what it is that makes them individual and unique. I think it is only through hearing about the lived experience of people who face this that we can really gain some insight into what it means, and I am grateful to those individuals who were prepared to share very personal experiences with people who were attentive but definitely strangers.

In my view, the three most surprising and disturbing aspects of the evidence that I heard in the course of the inquiry were as follows. First of all, the greatest hazards faced by firefighters are not necessarily or not only those hazards that members of the public would expect if asked—and they would be the flames, the fire and the risk of collapsing structures. In fact, they are the often unseen hazards in the form of toxins and carcinogens within the environment. The second surprising aspect to me was that despite the best efforts of employers, despite our best efforts with innovation and modern technology and all that is available—and my understanding is that Australia has some of the world's best personal protective equipment, the suits issued to firefighters—the personal protective equipment can never adequately protect firefighters from these chemicals and hazards that they confront daily in their working environment. That is because the fabrics need to be able to breathe so that firefighters do not overheat internally. So the fabrics have to be permeable to the atmosphere and, of course, the atmosphere is where the unseen chemicals and carcinogens are carried and then ingested through firefighters' skin. Every time they go into a fire, they know that they are vulnerable to these chemicals.

Finally, the most confronting aspect for me was to understand that most firefighters who contract these cancers as a result of their work—and the evidence indicates that many of the cancers that we know firefighters contract are work related—are not able to receive adequate compensation or financial support when they do contract a work related illness because of the current legal impediment of having to prove causation. Causation means proving that it was exposure during their occupation to these chemicals that actually caused their particular cancer, even though the probability is that it was that exposure.

As a lawyer in a previous life who worked with people in relation to workers compensation and litigation, I am acutely aware of that onerous impediment to proving a legal case: causation, where it is imperative that to succeed one has to prove the risk that was encountered and that there is a direct causal link between that and the consequence—and that is almost impossible, as we heard from the witnesses. There was one person who had actually attempted a claim initially and was advised, probably wisely by their lawyer, that it would be too hard, and there were others who had not even been able to go down that track. Essentially, they were left without protection. It is that long-standing injustice that this bill seeks to remedy. I can best sum up my views about that situation by going to the final paragraph of the committee report—and I am happy to endorse the entire report on behalf of the Australian Greens. The report states:

The committee recognises that when a person spends their professional career inhaling and absorbing known—and probably some as yet unknown—carcinogens in the course of public service, it is the moral duty of the community to enable them to seek compensation should they fall ill as a consequence.

I was really heartened by the collaboration involved in the genesis of this bill and the fact that it was co-sponsored by three of the parties in the parliament. I think that it is a challenge for us to see the parliament doing what we are really here for and doing our job properly—that is, to acknowledge that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, to inform ourselves on the best evidence available and then to take the action that we know is needed to achieve a just and a very long overdue result. What a good thing it would be if were able to, in the end, pass this legislation on a collaborative non-partisan basis. What a matter of pride it would be to tell the Australian public that we have done this thing on behalf of firefighters, who risk their lives and health on behalf of the community every day.

Question agreed to.

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