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WORKERS REHABILITATION AND COMPENSATION AMENDMENT (FIRE-FIGHTERS) BILL 2013

September 24, 2013

Mrs ARMITAGE ( Launceston ) - Mr President, I support this bill, and I have no issue with the principle of the legislation, but I believe it is discriminatory in its application. Firefighters do an amazing and difficult job, whether career or volunteers, and they should all be covered. It is disturbing to note that although career firefighters start off in the top 10 per cent of physically fit people, within five years their risk of certain cancers doubles. Everyone should be able to come to work safe and go home safe.

I was also surprised to learn that 91 per cent of Tasmania's firefighters are volunteers, and if we support this bill as it is, we are told that of the over 4 000 volunteers in Tasmania, only approximately 2.7 per cent, or around 90 volunteer firefighters, would have attended more than 260 instances and would have access to this presumptive legislation. One of the biggest issues with the number of incidents is that, even though you may attend the same fire on several occasions over a number of days, multiple attendances are only counted as one incident. This makes it difficult for the majority of volunteer firefighters to achieve the 260 incidents cited in this bill. However, it may only take one exposure to do the damage.

The Senate committee inquiry for career firefighters stated, and I think it is worth noting -

The committee has carefully examined the large amount of evidence with which it has been presented. Study after study has pointed to a higher risk of cancer for firefighters than the general population. Science has confirmed what firefighters suspected for decades: that a disproportionate number of them in the prime of their lives are brought down with illnesses usually reserved for the old and infirm.

The committee recognises that cancer is an illness that touches many fit, healthy people in the non-firefighter population as well. In many cases it is unpredictable and incomprehensible, due to genetics or factors we do not yet understand. But when the science tells us that a particular group of people who are routinely exposed through their service to the community to known carcinogens are at higher risk of developing certain types of cancer, then the response becomes clear.

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.

Volunteer and career firefighters fight exactly the same fires, they wear the same clothing, and have the same risk. We are told that one of the problems is that the suits they wear must breathe. While that helps to keep the firefighter alive, it also enables toxins to enter their skin and put them in danger. Fires are always an unknown. Structure fires can contain a real melting pot of plastics, synthetics, timbers, varnishes, the list goes on. When these combine into a toxic soup it is impossible to accurately determine what dangers the firefighter has been exposed to, whether volunteer or career. Bushfires can also contain many hidden dangers, particularly with the illegal dumping of rubbish.

Interestingly, we were told that the mop up after the fire can be just as dangerous as the fire itself. It is accepted that most volunteers have paid employment, and this employment would be taken into account with the burden of proof. The estimated value of Australia's volunteer firefighters is $5 billion nationwide. This is not inconsequential. There is no way Tasmania could afford to have career firefighters covering the whole state, and I have no doubt it would cost far more than the $2.1 million to $2.4 million estimated for additional insurance to cover all volunteers.

If you are doing the same job in the same conditions, then you should have the same benefits. I support this bill to establish a rebuttable presumption that particular forms of cancer developed by career and volunteer firefighters are work-related for the purpose of workers compensation, which will make the process of claiming workers compensation less cumbersome for firefighters, and that recognises that firefighters generally are at greater risk of developing certain types of cancers as a result of exposure to hazardous substances while attending firefighter activities.

I also support the amendments to be put forward by the honourable member for Windermere to ensure all firefighters, both volunteer and career, are covered by this bill. I support the bill.

 

 

 

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