Last year the Senate passed the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011. This bill sought to right a great injustice that existed in Australian society. It sought to give firefighters who develop a range of cancers due to their occupation a fair process to gain the compensation they deserve. Last night I had the great pleasure of meeting a number of firefighters, including delegates from Tasmania, and I was overwhelmed by their thanks to the government for ensuring this bill was passed. I would like to mention Peter Marshall, National Secretary of the United Firefighters Union, and other members of the United Firefighters Union and their families, who all helped inform the debate on this bill. I thank them for their input.
On 5 July 2011 the Senate referred the provisions of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee, of which I am a member, for inquiry and report. Some of the submissions to the inquiry gave heartbreaking accounts of the suffering and struggles that firefighters with cancer go through. It must be remembered that this suffering also extends to their families and loved ones.
The United Firefighters Union lobbied hard for their members to ensure that a fundamental injustice for firefighters was corrected. Prior to the passage of this government’s bill, it was almost impossible for a firefighter to gain compensation for a range of cancers that are most likely the result of their occupation. With the passing of this legislation for firefighters covered under Commonwealth law, a great wrong has been righted. As a former union official and delegate, I understand that a fundamental principle of Australian society is that if a worker gains an injury or disease due to their work they are entitled to be compensated by their employer for their sickness or injury. That is fair and just. The Australian people expect nothing less.
The hard work of the United Firefighters Union in campaigning on this issue shows just how important unions are in the fight to protect the health and safety of Australian workers in their work environment. Over the last few months I have met with firefighters and had the opportunity to discuss with them their working conditions and the risks and challenges the position holds.
Firefighters are a fundamental part of our society. Firefighters work hard for the communities they serve. They act bravely and selflessly, putting their own lives in danger, in order to save the lives and property of others. They attend not only structural and non-structural fires but also road accidents, chemical spills and threats from biohazardous materials. They are also on hand at Australian airports to protect the Australian flying public in case of an emergency.
One of the main incidents firefighters deal with is structural fires at houses and businesses. Structures burn extremely quickly. Scientific research shows that a fire must be suppressed within five to 10 minutes of ignition to prevent the complete destruction of a building. Consequently, fire services mandate a quick response by applying standards for their firefighters to respond to emergencies. Firefighters react to the fire that is in front of them. They face disorientating smoke, and hellish heat of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. While the protective clothing they wear when fighting fires protects them from flames, it leaves them exposed to toxins entering the body through inhalation or absorption through eyes, skin or wounds.
Firefighters are routinely exposed to harmful substances such as lead, cadmium, uranium, chemicals, harmful minerals and various gases that may have acute toxic effects. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of toxins and chemicals in the average household fire. Fabrics, furniture and construction materials give off a range of toxic gases when burning. These toxins include acetic acid, phenol, formaldehyde, PAHs, benzene, styrene, ammonia, carbon monoxide and cyanide.
The hazards at a fire scene are both pervasive and insidious, and exposure to toxins does not necessarily have to occur at the site of a fire or other fire response emergency. It might be that the firefighter is also exposed to hazards when cleaning fire equipment or cleaning out the truck back at the station, if chemicals have got onto the clothing, skin or apparatus of a firefighter or onto the truck. These toxic chemicals can accumulate in a firefighter’s system and build up over the years. Firefighters do the job that needs doing, and they do so without complaint. It is no wonder they are held in high esteem by Australian society.
Firefighters begin their careers fit and healthy. Firefighters who are killed or injured attending a fire incident are quite rightly given compensation for their injuries, and now firefighters employed under the Commonwealth act who have developed certain occupationally caused cancers and worked for the required qualifying periods can gain compensation also. These cancers include multiple myeloma, primary site lung cancer in non-smokers, primary site prostate, urethral, colorectal and oesophageal cancers, brain cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukaemia, breast cancer, and testicular cancer.
Firefighters no longer have to undertake adversarial, costly and often protracted legal proceedings to establish the link between firefighting and cancer and a causal relationship between a specific fire incident and their illness. Previously, it was almost always impossible for firefighters to prove that a cancer was caused through their occupation as a firefighter. They were unable to pinpoint a specific firefighting incident that was the cause of their cancer, as carcinogens build up in their system over a number of years. Tragically, due to the emotional and financial costs of litigation involved, not many firefighters who had developed cancer had sought access to any entitlement or compensation; neither were the families of firefighters who are no longer with us able to access compensation.
As a member of the committee, I had the opportunity to meet with firefighters both in Canberra and in Tasmania to discuss this important issue with them. I heard their stories and I heard their suffering. I also had the opportunity to read the submissions to the inquiry. Some of the scientific evidence contained in the submissions to the inquiry is quite astounding. Scientific studies have shown that firefighters are at significantly increased risk of developing certain types of cancer. A report into occupational cancers among New York City firefighters which was prepared by Mount Sinai Hospital and presented to the committee concluded that:
Leukaemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, cancer of the genitourinary tract, prostate cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, brain cancer and malignant melanoma are among the cancers that have been observed consistently with increased frequency in epidemiologic studies of firefighters.
The report continued:
The available data are sufficient to conclude that excess risk of cancer is a distinct hazard of firefighting.
The committee was told that firefighting is the most studied occupation in the world when it comes to cancer and that there are dozens of major studies from around the world, spanning over 20 years, which have made a definitive connection between firefighting and elevated cancer risk. Given the quantity and quality of evidence presented, the committee was convinced that a link between firefighting and an increased incidence of certain cancers has been demonstrated beyond doubt.
Submissions to this inquiry discussed the protection available to firefighters through the world-class safety gear and clothing Australian firefighters use. The committee heard that this protective gear, although it is consistent with all national and international safety regulations, cannot and does not form an impenetrable barrier between firefighters and the toxins they work amongst. Firefighters are by the nature of their work exposed to a large range of chemical carcinogens. Although most chemicals have not been tested for their toxic effects, there are a number of chemicals produced by burning materials that have been shown to be carcinogenic. Studies have been conducted across a number of countries and have, in recent years, been bolstered by comprehensive meta-analyses which provide strong evidence that firefighters are at increased risk of certain types of cancer through accumulated exposure to carcinogens.
This legislation does not affect a large number of people, but, for those it does affect, it makes the process of claiming compensation for occupational cancers considerably easier. It reduces the stress and emotional suffering felt by firefighters at the time in their life when they are most vulnerable. It rights a fundamental injustice, and it is the least our hardworking, life-saving, putting-their-own life-at-risk firefighters deserve.