Firefighters deserve inclusive compensation rights

October 26, 2021

Forests Amendment (Forest Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation) Bill 2021

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (18:02):

I am pleased to speak today on the Forests Amendment (Forest Firefighters Presumptive Rights Compensation) Bill 2021. The bill implements an occupational cancer presumptive rights compensation scheme for forest firefighters modelled on the scheme that passed this Parliament in 2019 for Fire Services Victoria and CFA members. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports this bill with a small but significant amendment.

The link between exposure to fire and cancer is an enormous risk to the health and safety of firefighters and a huge personal cost to those that protect our property and people. I stand here today very proudly as a CFA volunteer. We know the devastating bushfires Victoria faced in the summer of 2019–20 required the massive efforts of every firefighting resource our state could muster. Resources came from interstate and internationally to help. Fighting bushfires requires the cooperative efforts of career, volunteer, forest and industry fire crews with heavy machinery from timber and industry contractors. It is a multi-agency effort and exceptionally dangerous work. The exposure to every fire increases the risk of cancer, and quite a lot of research has been done, though the samples are often skewed by gender.

It is not just about research and statistics, though. At the end of every statistic is a person, and when contemplating these kinds of legislative changes we must have at the forefront of our minds the personal stories of those who are ultimately affected. At the time the presumptive rights legislation was passed in this Parliament for CFA and FRV firefighters we welcomed news that the government would implement a similar scheme for forest firefighters. Presumptive legislation is available in many jurisdictions around the world in varying forms. They include a common list of cancers, but that list is being expanded in response to emerging information.

Before speaking about this aspect in more detail, I will note contact from industry representatives who are concerned that the presumptive rights do not include industry brigades or independent contractors.

It is a requirement for plantations to have their own fire crews and they work hand in hand with the CFA on fire prevention activities and emergency fire response. There are 23 forest industry brigades registered across the state, representing about 800 people, with around 15 per cent of those being female. Hancock Victorian Plantations told me that from the summer of 2019–20 bushfires on their land alone there were 50 people eligible for the national emergency medal. These people are heroes but will not be eligible. I hope more work is done in the future to find ways to recognise the risk of exposure for these cohorts and how to extend them appropriate presumptive rights.

We do have an amendment today, which seeks to include female-specific cancers on the schedule list. If it is appropriate, I would ask for it to be circulated.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party amendment circulated by Ms MAXWELL pursuant to standing orders.

Ms MAXWELL: I said earlier that there are people at the end of the terrifying statistics linking exposure to fire with increased risk of cancer, but let us look at statistics for a moment. A substantial study of nearly 37,000 firefighters between 1972 and 1999 in Florida found significantly increased incidents of bladder, testicular and thyroid cancer for men. Female firefighters had significantly increased incident rates of overall cancer, cervical and thyroid cancers and Hodgkin’s disease. Women comprised around 5 per cent of the sample, so while the findings were significant the sample size was too small to be conclusive. Regardless, the suggestive data was frightening, with cervical cancer incidence more than four times higher in women firefighters. More generally, firefighters have a 9 per cent higher chance of developing cancer in their lifetime and are 14 per cent more likely to die. A study by Bates found testicular and prostate cancers were of high incidence in male firefighters.

In addition to studies on cancer risks, a growing body of research is emerging regarding exposure to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens and hormone disrupters. This is not just on the fireground but extends to stations and on firefighting gear. Medical oncologist Dr Kenneth Kunz suggests cancer rates in female firefighters run higher than the general population in Canada, predicting that female firefighters get a minimum 20 per cent more cancers than the general population. He suggests that 65 per cent of female firefighters will eventually get cancer and 45 per cent of them will die from cancer.

These predictions relate to Canada, where a number of provinces have recently expanded their presumptive rights to include female-specific cancers. Female firefighters are caught in a catch 22 in terms of research. They represent low numbers, compared to men, so they lack the scientific and media attention. Female firefighters in Canada and the United States are pushing for parity for gender-specific cancers. For them, if male counterparts are covered for testicular and other cancers, like prostate, why is there not a reasonable and good faith provision to include female-specific cancers?

It is disappointing that there is so little data specific to women and the impact on their reproductive organs from exposure to fire. While their numbers are only around 4 per cent in Australia, women have been involved in the fire responses for more than a century. Encouragingly, forest firefighters have a greater representation of women, at around 25 per cent, which makes this amendment even more important.

So while the science might not be able to demonstrate the same level of proof, women should not be penalised for this, and we believe that the suggested data should be enough to provide presumptive rights for reproductive cancers in women that are similar to those afforded to men.

Victoria prides itself on being progressive in terms of gender equality, and in fact the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning commissioned research back in 2016 to improve gender diversity in fire and emergency management. This research was led by Women’s Health Goulburn North East, from my electorate, and focused on how DELWP and networked emergency organisations might increase their capacity through diversity.

In all simplicity, gender equality is about creating a level playing field. This state has sometimes gone well beyond—extended levelling the playing field—in the name of gender equality, sometimes in ways I have completely agreed with. But it has not been prepared to put things in place ahead of the curve so that women are not left behind. I hope we do not wait years for data to confirm what we would reasonably conclude now—that the elevated risk in cancer we see in male reproductive organs is probably going to be the same tragic fate for women. This is not just about presumptive rights either. Recognising the probable increase in risk is important for the overall approach to health and safety for firefighters, whether that relates to protective gear, processes or other means to reduce the risk.

I do want to thank the government for actively engaging with me about this and for their undertaking to do further work on expanding these provisions. I look forward to this, and I hope provisions will be considered for FRV and CFA firefighters as well.

In closing, I said earlier that presumptive rights are not just about statistics but are about the individuals affected. A good friend of mine is a recipient of the support offered by the presumptive rights scheme for firefighters. He was and is a proud and effective CFA firefighter. My friend Mick Daws is a great man. And while I wish his cancer away with all my might, I am glad the presumptive scheme was there to give him some much-needed financial assistance and moral support. On that note I commend this bill to the house.

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Suburban Development, Minister for Veterans) (18:42): 

Thanks, everyone who has made a contribution on the second-reading debate. It is very interesting that it is an issue that is very close to Acting President Melhem’s heart—and his involvement in the development of where we have got today.

It is an unfortunate reality that recent research findings show that firefighters experience a higher rate of certain cancers than the population at large, and therefore it is a reasonable presumption that firefighters due to their dangerous and necessary occupation are more vulnerable to certain cancers. This bill shifts the burden of proof to access compensation in favour of our forest firefighters. It establishes a presumption that for eligible firefighters certain cancers will be treated as workplace injuries unless there is proof to the contrary. It does this by creating a scheme model very close to the one for career and volunteer firefighters under the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Act 2019.

This bill makes use of recent research and evidence on the risks to firefighters to underpin the very significant change to the workers compensation scheme. It is based on our best assessment of the risks and the costs of care, but the validity of those assumptions will need to be tested over time. The bill covers the categories of firefighter and the types of cancer for which the data and relative risks and eligibility requirements are clear and compelling.

I understand that Ms Maxwell has proposed an amendment to include three additional cancers under the scheme that primarily affect women. I think this whole chamber shares Ms Maxwell’s aspiration to ensure the scheme is supportive of women in our fire and emergency services.

This government is committed to increasing the representation of women in our fire and emergency services. Recently the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has established a women in fire emergency services management program through which they have undertaken research to understand the barriers to increasing the number of women in fire and emergency services leadership roles and to improve their recruiting and training processes to ensure a diversity of representation. I know that the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Minister D’Ambrosio, and Minister Symes in her role as Minister for Emergency Services are both very passionate about this and are making sure there are more women taking up positions in the fire services.

However, this bill is written to cover cancers in which we have the highest degree of confidence based on scientific evidence currently available globally. The cancers listed in this bill are those that governments across Australia are most confident are diagnosed more frequently in firefighters. At this present time we cannot say with any confidence that firefighting increases the risk of contracting other cancers. A recent report out of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has noted that very few studies have so far been conducted linking elevated incidence of the types of cancer that Ms Maxwell’s amendment is concerned with. Our government agrees that further research is needed and notes that there are a number of studies ongoing. The government will continue to monitor scientific evidence that evolves to ensure the scheme provides for all firefighters. This bill is about ensuring quality of protection across our different streams of firefighting services—for our career and volunteer and now forest firefighters. Any amendment to this scheme, including extending the scheme, would want to be considered holistically and acknowledge the importance of equal protection for those who put themselves on the front lines to keep Victorians safe.

In saying that, I want to thank Ms Maxwell again for raising this important matter regarding her amendment today. I note that Ms Maxwell with this amendment will not go into a division, but we thank her for raising this today. The Minister for Emergency Services, Jaclyn Symes, is a massive advocate for women in the emergency services and those on the front line, and I understand the Minister for Emergency Services has given Ms Maxwell a commitment to undertake further consultation and take into account the medical and scientific advice before we proceed with any reforms that Ms Maxwell may be suggesting. The emergency services minister is happy to involve Ms Maxwell when speaking to women this will affect and those on the ground. I am happy to provide in the chamber this commitment to Ms Maxwell to involving her in this development, and I know this is an area Minister Symes is really interested in exploring.

Motion agreed to – Read second time – Committed.

Committee deliberation

Clause 1 (18:49)

Ms MAXWELL: I have just a couple of quick questions, if I may, to the minister. Minister, you spoke in your speech about the research to ensure that there is further investigation and research done in relation to having these particular cancers for female firefighters, as is intended by my amendments. I am just wondering: how do we achieve those statistics if we are not ultimately encouraging female firefighters to take on that career role? These amendments were done as a guide to support women and encourage women to go into that role knowing that they would have potentially the same opportunities should they end up with cancers which are proven to have been caused by their firefighting career.

Mr LEANE: Well, the answer to Ms Maxwell is there is a commitment, and the Minister for Emergency Services, with the carriage of the other bills that we have passed around the CFA and FRV firefighters, is committed to exploring—well, there are couple of things that she is committed to. She is committed to increasing the number of women in the fire services, but she is also committed to working with the women that are currently in the fire services—to working with them and accessing with them and involving them in any research. I appreciate Ms Maxwell’s concern; I think the whole chamber does, as far as what she has brought to the house goes. As for this bill, it is a bill that the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change has carriage of, as far as the Victorian forest firefighters go. I know it is nothing to really brag about, Ms Maxwell, but the forest firefighters are actually 25 per cent female, so there is probably a better snapshot of what we can work with there as well. I am sure the minister for environment is happy to work with the Minister for Emergency Services and also Ms Maxwell, which is the commitment that Minister Symes has given.

Ms MAXWELL: Thank you, Minister. Look, I would just like to leave this with a comment and just say that while I am disappointed that the amendments are not going to a vote, I am incredibly excited, and I thank the minister for his commitment and particularly Attorney-General Symes for giving this commitment. I really look forward to us working together to ensure that female firefighters are encouraged both to work in the field and to feel that there will be further research done to ensure that there is equality and that for those cancers that are listed for men, women will feel that they have that same right afforded to them. Once again, I thank the minister for his responses and for that commitment.

Clause agreed to; clauses 2 to 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 (18:54)

Ms MAXWELL: I move:

1. Clause 9, after line 27 insert—

  • 13 Primary site cervical cancer 10 years
  • 14 Primary site ovarian cancer 10 years
  • 15 Primary site uterine cancer 10 years

I would just like to speak on that amendment, if I may. I think I probably covered off most points in my contribution earlier, but I will reinforce our view that female firefighters should not be disadvantaged from support simply because their demographic is currently too small to provide for conclusive studies. I would like to thank everyone again who has engaged with me and my office on the proposed amendment, including the government, the opposition shadow minister and most of the crossbenchers.

The markers are there, and we should pay attention. Women are as susceptible to elevated risks of cancer as men. Men have significantly elevated risks to their reproductive organs, including testicular cancer, and indicative statistics, though small in number, show the incidence of cervical cancer to be more than four times higher in women firefighters. Yes, the studies are inconclusive on female reproductive organs, but it is a reasonable bow to draw. Quite simply, what is good for the goose is good for the gander—or in this case, the other way around. There are jurisdictions around the world recognising this very point and including women-specific cancers out of good faith and caution. While that might not be enough to make this change today, I am very hopeful that this amendment will be incorporated into future legislation and extend these presumptive rights to all female firefighters.

Mr LEANE: I just quickly reiterate the commitment from Minister Symes to working particularly with Ms Maxwell on this issue and working actually with the women that are currently in the services, but also the commitment of Minister (Jaclyn) Symes and Minister (Lily) D’Ambrosio about increasing the number of women that are in this part of the emergency services—a very important part of the emergency services. I think we agree to work together into the future, but this particular amendment we will not be supporting at this point.

Amendment negatived; clause agreed to; clause 10 agreed to.

Reported to house without amendment.