You are here

Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2023

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Tags: Workers Rights, Health, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, the Greens are very happy to support this bill. I commend the Attorney-General for preparing it and bringing it on in what is a reasonably prompt period of time given that this is of world-leading legislation. I understand the Commonwealth has prepared legislation to this effect for defence force fighters and I believe Victoria now has the same legislation.

We are again leading in this area on the back of being the first state to introduce presumptive cancer legislation in 2012, where people who work as firefighters can be presumed to be at an increased risk of cancer as a result of their job and do not have to demonstrate evidence that the cancer that develops has been as a result of workplace activity. The fact is that firefighting is getting even more dangerous than it already was. It has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the most dangerous occupations for cancer risk in the world. That is saying something.

Tasmania has legislation that we brought in so male firefighters no longer have to prove a direct link between the male-specific cancers that they develop and their firefighting activity. That has not been the case for women. That has been unjust and perpetuates an historical misogynistic attitude that might be perceived as a cultural remnants. Women firefighters may not feel that they as appreciated and valued as the men that they fight fires alongside of. I believe it is not the case that this is any intention or part of an active culture that exists in the Tasmanian Fire Service but the importance of having this legislation resolved goes a long way towards demonstrating that it is not just talking the talk. It is the actions that show that women are just as valued as the men that they stand next to and put their lives on the line for us to defend our lives and our property when we need them to.

The situation with firefighting risk is growing ever more serious. That is in the largest part due to plastics. We have increasingly toxic exposures that firefighters confront every day when they fight a fire. Every single fire has a cocktail of carcinogens that are released, including benzene, toluene, polycyclic, aromatic hydrocarbons and mesothelioma. These sorts of carcinogens are the standard diet, if you like, of a firefighter. As I understand from talking with members of the United Firefighters Union, you cannot completely avoid this. Even wearing breathing apparatus and the best possible protective suits that we can make available to them, firefighters still absorb chemicals through the skin. It is impossible to have a firefighter in a suit that does not breathe as they would cook - they would basically boil alive. So, there is necessarily some air movement in suits. That is one of the pathways of exposure.

We need to ensure that people are well educated on the other risks that can be decreased when firefighting, such as not eating anywhere in the vicinity of a fire, not putting things in your mouth, not absorbing - doing everything possible to avoid access to firefighting smoke. However, even when that happens, despite our absolute best efforts, firefighters will be exposed to higher toxic levels of chemicals. That is why, sadly, the evidence is very clear that being a firefighter is a group 1 carcinogen risk, according to the World Health Organization. It is the highest scale of risk on the WHO scale for occupational exposures.

Some work that was produced and reported in the Journal of Occupational Medicine in January 2023 shows that overall, cancers for firefighters have a 1.6 times greater death rate than they do for the general population. This was from a massive study of over 33 000 firefighters in the United Kingdom. There are higher levels of heart cancer and lung cancer from asbestosis and pulmonary myelofibrosis and sarcoidosis - those types of cancers are higher in firefighters.

I acknowledge and thank the Australian researchers and the Australian research that went into the initial World Health Organization assessment that firefighting is a group 1 carcinogen occupation risk. There was research from Australian firefighters, career firefighters, volunteer firefighters, men and women from the Australian firefighter health study, a massive cohort study, as well was from Queensland firefighters, another cohort study. That work was taken to the WHO subcommittee for discussion and the committee was headed by Associate Professor Deborah Glass. She is an Australian professor and she did that work and headed the work at the WHO on making that assessment.

I also acknowledge and respect the work of Alex Forrest, who is a firefighter and a lawyer. He has also been involved at the international level, looking at the assessment and the classification of carcinogen risks for firefighters. I thank him and the UFU for the briefing they gave me, on behalf of the Greens, about this issue.

What we have then is a very clear increased risk for men and women. The general cancers, the lung cancers, the skin cancers, pancreatic cancer and thyroid cancer for both men and women were clearly an increased risk. Male-specific cancer, penile cancer, was able to be substantiated by the evidence.

This is a problem with the epidemiology in that there are just not that many women firefighters on the planet to have long term-cohort studies. There was never any question in the minds of the researchers who did the work at the World Health Organization that there would not be the same level of risk for women with female specific cancers. The problem is we could not collect the evidence because there are not enough women to collect it from. The time it would take to build up a generation of women working in firefighting in Australia or around the world and have the numbers to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt there was an increased risk for ovarian and uterine and cervical cancers would take another generation.

It is time we cannot waste, because it is women firefighters who will die on a job as a result of cancer and those cancers could be prevented. The point of this legislation is not just about compensation and justice for women firefighters should they develop any of these female specific cancers. It is about a diagnostic screening process the Tasmania Fire Service needs to put in place now. To make sure women by virtue of being in an occupation that has such a high risk of cancer for women specific cancers, there needs to be diagnostic screening tools.

What this legislation will do is it will put a burden of responsibility on all organisations that employ firefighters, men and women, to make sure there is diagnostic screening tools available so that regular checks can be taken. If there is a cancer that develops, then it can be immediately responded to, surveillance. Back to the epidemiology, the reason it has taken a while for women to catch up with men is just an artefact of not having as many women so far who have been working as firefighters. The evidence of bodies, male and female, is we all unfortunately function the same when we are exposed to toxic chemicals. It is just in principle, it is obvious and it has been decided by expert scientific bodies these cancers should be included as a presumptive cancer for women, because those body organs will also be damaged from prolonged exposure.

The other thing I wanted to say is the risk increases of all the cancers, including bladder cancer and colon and prostate and testicular cancer, melanoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma which have all been connected with firefighting. The risk increases with years of work and the number of incidences attended. That is the evidence of the epidemiological research that has been done. It is the case that firefighters in the last 50 years have changed - that the level of exposure firefighters are confronting in a given fire incident has increased. That is because 50 years ago, houses and the built environment did not have the amount of plastic in them and toxic chemicals we do now. The sheer load and volume of plastics means firefighters today compared to firefighters 50 years ago, are confronting a much more threatening, hazardous environment when they go to fight a fire.

I expect the evidence will show the risk, will show in the function of the number of years of work and the number of incidences attended. The Tasmanian Fire Service should pay careful attention to the type of incidences attended because some of them could be much more hazardous than others. It may well be the case there needs to be some preparation of prevention information and education available for our firefighters which looks at the specific sorts of incidents and whether they were producing a greater volume of hazardous chemicals when people were attending.

I do not have more to say to this, other than I am really happy on behalf of Tasmania's women firefighters. They can understand that they work in a workplace that values and respects their contributions and the great service that they do for us, just as much as they do for the men who work there.

I bumped into some of the members of UFU and Alex Forrest some months ago, when Alex was in Tasmania. I was buoyed about how happy they were, that they could see this change coming. It is a beautiful thing to see people who have fought for years for justice and to see that the end is in sight and justice will be done.

I thank the minister for bringing this on and for drawing a line under this issue, so that women and men firefighters of Tasmania know that we have got their backs. We thank them for their service.