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Thursday, 15 September 2011
Page: 6196

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (12:22): On behalf of the coalition I join the spirit of the comments made by the Chair of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee and the inquiry, Senator Marshall, relating to the protection of firefighters as it relates to cancers. The committee heard evidence and was particularly impressed by the balance with which those presenting to the committee conducted themselves and presented their evidence.

Early in the inquiry, as Senator Marshall has indicated, the committee was concerned to address itself to the cost impacts on employers in the event that we were able to move to a circumstance in which easier and better availability of and access to workers compensation would be afforded. That led to the Fire Chief of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, in Alberta, with the goodwill of his minister, addressing the committee at its hearing in Perth.

Some interesting points came out of Mr Block's evidence to the committee. The first was that there had been no significant or discernible increase in workers compen­sation costs to the service as a result of the inclusion of the cancers that were mentioned in his evidence. I think more important was his report on the advice that, as a result of wellness and health awareness programs, there is generally an increase in awareness by firefighters of the importance of their work and their need to protect themselves, their work colleagues who do not go to fires and are not exposed to the chemicals and, equally, their families. We saw in the past, for example, instances in which contam­inated clothing came back to fire stations and was laundered in domestic laundries along with household laundry, only for people to learn that the carcinogens that they had picked up in those incidents were quite often still on the clothing.

It is necessary to explain why firemen, be they career or volunteer firefighters—and I do want to come back to volunteer firefighters—are placed in this position. Firefighters are amongst the very small group of employees who are required to go into highly dangerous circumstances. The question might be asked: why can't they be put in clothing that would protect them against the chemicals that are carcinogens or that will lead to cancer? The reason is that the first responsibility for the service, for the employer and for the employees themselves is to ensure that they are in clothing that can breathe so that they can lose body heat in the event of fire. Body heat is the most immediate cause of death of firefighters. So the nature of the clothing—and an enormous amount of research work has gone into this—that firefighters wear in the event of a fire incident is such that, whilst on the one hand it allows the body to lose heat and therefore not succumb to hyperthermia, on the other it allows the absorption or in some cases the ingestion of the carcinogens to which we are referring. In other events, such as a chemical spill, we saw evidence of the firefighters being placed into plastic clothing with forced ventilation capacity so that they could go into a chemical area and not succumb. But, by the very nature of plastic clothing, naturally we cannot see that in a fire circumstance.

So what are we looking at? We are looking at a situation in which these people, particularly going into vehicle fires, residential fires and industrial fires, find themselves subjected to burning chemicals as a result of their activity. In fact, even this chamber, if it were the subject of exam­ination, would probably have a number of products—the carpet, the lamination in the wood, the glue, the nature of the seating et cetera; the products upon which we are seated and around us—with a very signifi­cant number, potentially, of carcinogens in the event that they burned. Basically, that circumstance exists, as it was presented, and the coalition joins Senator Marshall in the majority report in saying that it is patently obvious that if a person is a firefighter, if a person has been subjected to the sorts of incidents I have described, if they are subjected to those sorts of carcinogens as a result of burning plastic, they are likely over time to absorb or ingest those carcinogens.

At the moment it would appear that the workers compensation legislation is deficient. It is deficient because of the under­standing of the difficulty that the fireman has in having to prove the actual incident that they may have been at to have caused the ingestion or absorption of that carcinogen, which of course is patently ridiculous. We understand that there are qualifying periods. We understand that a fireman would have to go through rigorous assessment et cetera. However, to give recognition to this—and the wider community would no doubt expect it—we need to simplify the process such that a person, be they career or volunteer firefighter, is able to show, firstly, that they are a firefighter; secondly, that they have been at incidents of the type that are likely to cause the absorption or ingestion of carcinogens; and, thirdly, that they now have one of those cancers. That should be all that is necessary for them to be able to proceed forward and be entitled to a claim under workers compensation as easily and as quickly as possible so that they do not have over their heads and those of their family the fear that they might not get that.

Where the coalition are at variance from the majority report is that we do not believe that presumptive legislation is necessary to give effect to what is a fair and reasonable request from firefighters. We say that existing workers compensation legislation should be able to be amended and that a mechanism should be found so that, under existing legislation, we can give effect to what are the most reasonable claims of the firefighters. That is the position taken in the comments by the coalition in this report, which I am very, very pleased to lend my name to. Why do we believe that we do not need presumptive legislation? Because workers compensation legislation in its present form should be adequate. I give you as an example the legislation associated with the regrettable and horrific diseases related to asbestos exposure. We now know in this country that it is only necessary for a person to be able to demonstrate that they are employed or were employed in the asbestos industry, secondly that their workplace did expose them to asbestos and thirdly that they now have one of those diseases—asbestosis, mesothelioma or whatever—hopefully in its earlier stages. Having proved those three legs of the trifecta, they are then entitled to their workers compensation. I believe that is the model and the direction in which we should be moving in this instance.

Whilst the legislation before the committee related only to Commonwealth employees, as Senator Marshall quite rightly said, if state or other jurisdictional legislation is deficient then we would hope that the successful model would find its way into those other jurisdictions. I remind the chamber that, whilst the majority of firefighters in this country, be they career or volunteers, report to, respond to or are paid by state authorities, there are also local governments that, for example, run regional airports around Australia and their firefighters would be employed by local government. We also know that the private sector—the offshore oil and gas industry, mining industry and others—employ or have as volunteers firefighters who may be exposed to the same conditions.

I will conclude my comments relating to volunteers. Whilst it is true that their qualifying period and their time of exposure to the carcinogens in question would be more limited, I am very pleased to support the fact that we are including and not excluding volunteers in this. As I say, the coalition supports the general thrust of the outcome of this inquiry and congratulates and thanks those who participated but urges that we do not need presumptive legislation to give it effect.