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Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Page: 6189

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (19:16): Recently I met with a delegation from the United Firefighters Union of Australia who came to Canberra to raise awareness about a life-threatening aspect of their profession. I draw the attention of the House to the very important issue of occupational health and safety as it relates to the firefighting profession. There is a proven link between firefighting and the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Evidence collected through studies in the United States and Canada have demonstrated that this link is a real and present danger to the health of firefighters everywhere and is, in fact, a leading cause of death amongst members of the firefighting profession.

In fact so evident was the relationship between firefighting and cancer related deaths that action was taken in Canada and the United States of America to address concerns and to put in place a legislative regime that provides security and support to firefighters and their families. It is called presumptive legislation and is a set of laws that identify diseases or conditions that have been shown to be hazards associated with an occupation. Presumptive legislation now exists in seven Canadian provinces and 43 US states and is designed to protect the family of a deceased firefighter. This legislation is also now being considered in Europe.

I also draw the attention of the House to the campaign by the UFUA to urge the parliament to put in place similar legislation in Australia. All members of this House recognise the invaluable and, indeed, the very dangerous work our firefighters do. We often get up and speak about that very important, lifesaving work. We rightly remember our firefighters during major calamities, but the reality is that fighting fires is a daily job for professional firefighters.

Perhaps we might think that fighting a house fire or even a car fire would be less dangerous than the magnitude of the Black Saturday fires but the truth is that a silent killer lurks, apart from the fire itself, in this challenge. It comes in the form of exposure to numerous chemicals and gases which form toxic cocktails from plastics and other hazardous material during combustion. Think what exposure to radiant heat of up to 1,000 degrees can do to products that emit toxins and fumes which are inevitably absorbed by our firefighters time and time again as they go about their jobs. Fires in today's world are as much about toxins and chemicals as they are about heat and light. The plasticised, chemical world we live in means the vast majority of fires, however minor, emit elevated levels of toxins to which long-term exposure significantly increases the risks of certain types of cancer. We know through sound scientific evidence that there is a visibly higher rate of cancer related illnesses amongst firefighters than there is amongst the general population. The correlation of research data from 110,000 firefighters in North America is testament to this. We know it is due to work related exposure and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that firefighters and their families, who assume this risk during their prime physical health and fitness, are properly cared for when the battles have worn their body thin.

It is my belief that this is a serious issue which warrants our attention. We need to do more than simply acknowledge the lifesaving work of our firefighters, which is carried out at a cost to their health and with severe impact on the life of their children and families. I want to acknowledge the work of the men and women of the MFB and CFA fire stations in my electorate—in Broadmeadows, Bulla, Campbellfield, Craigieburn, Greenvale, Kalkallo, Sunbury and Tullamarine. They are stations at the front line of defence for the tens of thousands of families in my electorate. So, it goes without saying that as we recognise this we need to also seek to put forward presumptive legislation so that the affected firefighters can access assistance and compensation for what are clearly occupational diseases. It is our moral obligation as a society and it is ultimately a social safety net.

I will conclude by acknowledging the tireless work of the United Firefighters Union of Australia and their determined campaign to protect their members and their families. We need to support each and every one of our firefighters in Australia by replicating the presumptive legislation in this parliament—because the life that they save may, one day, be ours.