Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, the Greens will also be supporting this bill.
I wanted to say a few words about the challenging conditions involved in fighting bushfires. It is increasingly difficult to take the precautionary steps firefighters need to take to avoid exposure to carcinogens. Prevention is largely related to the specialist protective gear and the breathing apparatuses that are worn by firefighters. These become harder to wear in bushfires. There are people who are fighting house fires and there is the capacity often to have rotating teams so that people spend less time exposed to radiant heat and life-threatening conditions.
In bushfires that is not always possible because conditions change so rapidly and people become isolated. Bushfires in Tasmania and around the world are taking far longer to extinguish. They can be far more physically exhausting to get under control because people often need to spend so much time getting fires under control under incredibly hot temperatures.
In those conditions, firefighters can struggle to keep their full personal protective equipment on. If a person does, that has dangers because full PPE and heavy clothing that people need to protect themselves against breathing dangerous chemicals as well as the radiant heat that can kill people, means that the human body is at risk of cooking, and this is a known high danger for firefighters. The fire gear does an extremely good job of stopping the heat getting in, but it also does the same thing in reverse and it can stop the heat getting out.
Firefighters are known to suffer a much higher risk of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heart attacks, asthma, and, of course, cancers, which brings us to the bill here today. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the IARC, which is part of the World Health Organisation, declared firefighting to be a cancer-causing profession in July this year. It escalated the profession of firefighting from group 2b (possibly carcinogenic to humans), to group 1 (carcinogenic to humans). That is a belated statement from the WHO, which is not surprising as it takes a long time for the science to percolate up to that level. It is something about which the science has been quite settled now for some years. Firefighters are known to be diagnosed with cancer at a rate roughly four times the general population depending on the cancer and that is according to a 2020 report from the University of Central Lancashire, commissioned by their local fire brigades union.
In bushfires and in preventive burns to some extent, people can be exposed to intense levels of particulates that are harmful to human functioning. They are transmitted by the smoke and can contain things like flame-retardance gases from burning plastics and volatile organic compounds that are released from the burning of many items that are sitting around in households or paddocks, in outside industrial activity, and from the chemicals that are burning in the bush itself. They can include industrial solvents, paints, pesticides, herbicides, petroleum fuels, many chemical poisons that seep into the protective gear that people wear. They penetrate the masks and can cause immediate and longer-term breathing problems and for some people, cancers.
Unions and employees have long battled to have the cancers that are strongly linked to those exposures recognised as a presumptive occupational hazard and I want to recognise the work of many people around the world, firefighters, unions and people who have themselves suffered from those workplace-induced cancers and have had to go through painful processes of having their workplace exposure recognised as the cause or the source of the cancer they are suffering.
Regular and, to some extent unavoidable exposures to these carcinogens by firefighters were first recognised in legislation in Tasmania in 2013 for the career and volunteer firefighters in the TFS and that added a list of 12 cancers that, were a person to be diagnosed with one of them, it was presumed to have been as a result of a work-related exposure and not required to be proven thus. The presumption of hazard rests with the workplace activities and this means that the person no longer has to argue it, and that is a much more just and humane approach and we are all pleased about that.
When I took the bill through for the Greens in 2017 and minister Archer added in Forestry Tasmania and Natural Resource Management employees, previously DPIPWE, who are involved in fighting bushfires, they were recognised as the gap. It is clear that the unintended, inadvertent gap was that there was one remaining group, the Bushfire Risk Unit, which I understand comprises mostly NRE, Forestry Tasmania and TFS staff who are tasked with taking the preventative burns to reduce flammable vegetation and reduce the threats of hazard. They remained unprotected as a result of the 2017 amendment and I spoke to the staff and asked them whether they thought there was any possibility there was anyone left in Tasmania. I want to thank them for the briefing that they gave me. They are quite confident that this is the last piece of legislation we will need to take to make sure that everyone who fights a fire is covered.
We strongly support the bill, and we also support increasing protections and resourcing for the very brave firefighters - the paid and volunteer people - who put their lives at risk because of the nature of the work that they do and also because of the increasing threat of the work from climate-charged bushfires. The nature of bushfires and the nature of fighting them is changing fast. Climate heating is driving things like heat domes, which focus intense heat bubbles over an area for days or weeks and that can drive up localised extreme increases in temperature that have never been seen in the region before. This might be an increase of five or six degrees above the highest recorded maximum in an area, and that sits for days over area and makes fighting fires impossible and highly dangerous. It is also creating violent, fire driven convective currents that manifest as towering pyro-cumulus clouds that can result in - horrifyingly - firestorms. They have an intensity that creates and sustains their own wind system and generates enormous turbulence that can cause the surface winds to change direction erratically, which is obviously a huge threat to people who are on the ground in these intense conditions.
Humans never saw these conditions other than in the horrific fire-bombings of Dresden and other cities during the Second World War when there was such an explosive amount of heat generated by bombing at one point. These are new conditions, and people are standing there, going out protecting us and doing this work for us. We owe them all of the effort, resourcing and support they need to do that dangerous work. Some of the spokespeople for these firefighters include the 33 ex-fire chiefs and the emergency climate leaders for actions, who are crystal-clear that we all bear the responsibility to stop stoking the fires that increasingly threaten our communities and our wild places and the firefighters who fight them. They have pleaded with us and are very clear that the first order of protection firefighters need is to reduce the carbon emissions that we are putting into the atmosphere. Unless we stop fuelling the heat in the system, then all of the stuff that we do on the ground will be pointless in just a few years' time because of the way that the climate heating is accelerating so rapidly, far more than we thought.
The WHO's decision to classify the profession of firefighting as being carcinogenic to humans is obviously a call on all of us to do what we can to provide the critical measures that firefighters need to protect their health. I want to ask the minister, in line with what Ms O'Byrne said, why we have not in this bill added the seven extra cancers that ought to be covered by firefighter presumptive legislation, to include thyroid, pancreatic, skin, cervical, ovarian, penile and lung cancers. They are the ones that are listed by the WHO International Agency Against Cancer. They are obviously agreed now at the international level, so why are they not in this legislation? These affect men and women, but because more women are becoming firefighters in increasing numbers, and we want to encourage and support that, then we have to put the measures in place to support them early.
Finally, firefighters need to have a commitment from this Government for long-term health screening and therapeutic blood donations, which is now an available technique to manage a person's exposure to a range of dangerous toxins, including PFAS. Comprehensive health screening for all firefighters and the possibility of therapeutic blood donations is so important.