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Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Portection for Firefighters) Bill 2011

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 25 Nov 2011

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:04): It is with real pride that I rise to speak in support of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011, which was initiated by my lower house Greens colleague, Adam Bandt. I also note that in a spirit of goodwill and collaboration it was co-sponsored by a member of the government, Ms Vamvakinou, and a member of the opposition, Mr Broadbent.

Legislation of this type to provide proper protection for firefighters for the cancers they contract at a far greater rate than the ordinary population has been a long time coming. I feel fortunate that I have been able to participate in a process whereby we can pass groundbreaking legislation like this in Australia. In an environment where politics too often trumps the rightness of the decisions we should be taking, this process has been an exception. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Senate Standing Committees on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations that inquired into the original version of this bill. In particular, I pay tribute to the chair, Senator Gavin Marshall, and his colleagues from the government and the deputy chair, Senator Chris Back, and his colleagues from the opposition. Through a process of careful listening with open minds to the evidence—both the science and the human stories of the consequences of not having adequate legal protection—we were all able to appreciate the rightness of the approach taken by this legislation. Senators Marshall and Back then advocated for the bill and set about convincing their colleagues, and the end result is one we can all be proud of. It will be a significant change to the law brought about through a process of negotiation and collaboration in the national interest, which will bring benefits to those who need them. It is a triumph of policy and propriety over politics. The Australian people would be justly pleased to see their parliament operating in this way.

The process of seeing this bill on its journey through the parliament has been one of discovery for me. While sitting on the Senate inquiry into this legislation, I had an opportunity to come to understand more about the work of firefighters. Like all Australians, I admired their work and, of course, I was grateful that they are prepared to put their lives on the line to protect the broader community. Indeed, a recent survey of Australians' attitudes to the professions had firefighters come in as the second most respected profession just after paramedics—I will not dare say where politicians were ranked on that scale. Fortunately, I have not needed the services of firefighters in the past and I did not know much about the real nature of their work. It is obvious that firefighters face perils as they work to protect the community. What was a revelation to me, though, and I think also to my colleagues on the Senate inquiry, was that the greatest hazards to firefighters are not the flames and collapsing structures but the unseen chemicals that lurk in the smoke produced in modern structure fires. It is these chemicals that pose the deadliest threat to firefighters in the course of their work and it is the consequence of ingesting them—for some firefighters, the occurrence of cancer—which this legislation is aimed at addressing.

I will not dwell on the science, as it is well canvassed in the committee's report. Suffice to say that dozens of studies over 20 years in various nations have all pointed to the strong association between an elevated risk of cancers and firefighting. It is the harmful substances in the smoke and particulates emitted from the fires which cause the problem. These contain many usually unseen compounds which are taken into firefighters' bodies through their lungs or skin. According to a study in 2006, the LeMasters metastudy, firefighters are routinely exposed to harmful substances such as lead, cadmium, uranium, chemical substances, harmful minerals and various gases that may have acute toxic effects. Approximately 1,000 new chemicals are registered every year in the United States and these include carcinogenic chemicals which are released during combustion.

A disturbing aspect of the evidence before the inquiry was that, despite the established heightened risk of cancers for firefighters and the best personal protective equipment available, they cannot fully protect themselves from those risks. Although Australian firefighters use world-class safety gear and clothing which is consistent with all national and international safety regulations, it cannot and does not form an impenetrable barrier between firefighters and the toxins in their environment. That is because the clothing or protective equipment must be capable of breathing. In intensely hot conditions, with some structure fires approaching temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, if the clothing did not breathe, firefighters would suffer heat stress and could quickly perish from metabolic heat build-up damaging their internal organs.

So despite their best efforts firefighters cannot control the hazardous environments they enter. Unlike most workers, who are encouraged to assess risks before undertaking work, firefighters must venture into unsafe workplaces as quickly as possible in order to do the job. The workplace is unknown and the hazard cannot be quantified, but they do know that carcinogens will be present. Contrary to established occupational health and safety requirements, firefighters do not have the same right to refuse unsafe work as other employees. It is the nature of the work which puts them at risk. It is humbling to understand that they do this willingly on our behalf.

The original bill contained a list of seven cancers together with respective qualifying periods but, as a result of up-to-date scientific knowledge available to the Senate inquiry and recommendations flowing from the Senate committee's report, the range of cancers has been extended in the legislation to cover a further five cancers. As data becomes clearer in relation to primary site lung cancer in nonsmokers, it is possible that this too will be included.

Having established that firefighters are at heightened risk of contracting specific cancers as a result of their work, the Senate inquiry heard that it is usually impossible for a firefighter who has contracted cancer to achieve any compensation or support from his or her employer. In order to receive compensation a firefighter must establish that their occupation was the cause of the cancer, and that can be almost impossible. Proving there was exposure to particular carcinogens in a particular fire and then establishing a direct causal link between that exposure and the illness is very difficult, requiring complex and costly legal proceedings with no guarantee of success. It is that difficulty, that impediment, that this legislation is directed at rectifying.

The Senate inquiry heard evidence from various firefighters who had contracted cancer about the costs they incurred and the income they lost as a result of the illness. In some cases they had to rely on accumulated sick leave and annual leave and lived in fear that they would exhaust their leave before they were able to return to work. In other cases they used wage protection insurance, which led to reduced income, out of which they had to pay for increased medical expenses such as chemotherapy. In one appalling piece of evidence, one firefighter was told his insurance policy had been cancelled once he returned to work in remission. When it was finally reinstated, he was told he would no longer be covered for cancer. He still pays the same premiums, although the cover has been significantly reduced. What an injustice. If he ever contracts cancer again he will not be covered.

The inquiry also heard humbling stories about firefighters relying on the assistance and charity of colleagues and friends. Clearly that is a totally unacceptable situation which has caused great hardship to firefighters and their families, and this bill is designed to rectify the situation. The bill will amend the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act so that where a firefighter contracts a particular form of cancer, if certain other conditions such as length of service are met, it will be presumed that the cancer is work related. There are precedents for this kind of approach in relation to other work related conditions and in other places. Presumptive legislation for firefighters was first introduced in Manitoba, Canada in 2002 and now exists in seven Canadian provinces and 43 US states.

In recognising the importance of passing this legislation, I pay tribute to the work of Alex Forrest, the Canadian firefighter and lawyer who has fought long and hard to bring the benefits of this kind of legislation to firefighters in Canada, the US and now Australia. He is also continuing his good work in other nations as well. I also acknowledge the tireless advocacy and determination of the United Firefighters Union of Australia in promoting the benefits of this legislation for firefighters in Australia, especially the national secretary, Peter Marshall, and industrial officer, Joanne Watson, among others.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard from witnesses whose evidence to the Senate inquiry helped to establish the strong scientific basis for this legislation as well as the need for reform. These included Ken Block, the Fire Chief of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services—a very impressive witness from Canada—and the firefighters and families who flew to Perth to speak to the committee. For many of those firefighters and families, this legislative change will come too late or will not cover them, as it applies to Commonwealth firefighters. However, these witnesses generously gave up their time and shared their very personal experiences in order to bring about long overdue change that will benefit others. Their testimony was straightforward and compelling. In conclusion, I do not think I can say it any better than it has been said by one of the firefighters who appeared before the inquiry, Ross Lindley. Ross epitomises the matter-of-fact, practical attitude that I found in abundance as I met these people. He accepts responsibility for the choices that firefighters make, knowing the risks they face. He just asks that the government, and, by extension, the parliament, accepts its responsibility to acknowledge the risks we ask people to run on our behalf and takes the appropriate action. I quote from Ross's submission:

As a fire fighter you know the risks of the job. But you take those risks to protect the community. We are asking that the Government now recognises those risks and put the proper protections in place for firefighters.

I commend this Greens bill to the Senate. If passed, it will be a credit to collaboration and multipartisanship in the interests of what is right and fair.

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