Firefighter cancer change now urgent

Media statement

Tania Maxwell MP has renewed her call for the Victorian government to expand presumptive rights for female firefighters to include cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers after the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified the occupation as carcinogenic to humans.

The IARC published a summary of its evaluations in The Lancet Oncology on July 1 after a working group of 25 international experts from eight countries convened in Lyon, France, in June.

Firefighters’ occupational exposure to cancer was evaluated by the IARC Monographs program in 2007, and at that time classified the occupation as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 2B) on the basis of limited evidence.

The working group in June reviewed available scientific literature and determined that the occupational classification for firefighters should be elevated to Group 1 on the basis of ‘sufficient evidence’ of cancer in humans.

Ms Maxwell said the weight of the WHO findings should prompt the government to urgently expand presumptive cancer rights for firefighters, starting with her private member’s bill focused on female-specific cancers.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria has been fighting to expand presumptive cancer rights for the past year and introduced a parliamentary bill in May 2022 to add three female-specific cancers to the existing list of presumptive rights available to Victorian firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

She said she had negotiated in good faith with the government on expanding presumptive rights and had worked in the background with the government and stakeholders to progress reforms for professional and volunteer firefighters.

The government rejected Ms Maxwell’s bill during debate on June 8, before it was adjourned in the Legislative Council with a government promise to bring a lasting solution ‘at the proper time’[i].

Ms Maxwell said the government could no longer justify delaying workplace rights for female firefighters.

“The science is clear and the government should deliver these rights to female firefighters as a matter of priority,” she said.

“Victoria prides itself on being progressive but has so far been holding back on delivering workplace rights for female firefighters on a pretty weak argument, on that is now simply neglectful.

“Female firefighters represent about 5 per cent of the workforce, but their participation rate is somewhere around 25 per cent in the forest firefighting sector. Industry firefighters, who fight alongside them have no protection at all.

“I have spoken with various fire services and their workers, both formally and informally. The Volunteer Fire Brigades of Victoria strongly support this push, as do members of the Fire Services Victoria, Country Fire Authority and the United Firefighters Union.”

More information on the World Health Organisation’s IARC reclassification is available here.

[i] Cesar Melham MP, second reading debate Hansard (8 June 2022)