Women firefighters deserve fairness

Media statement

Tania Maxwell MP today moved to extend compensation available for Victorian firefighters to include cancers specific to women.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria, who is also a Country Fire Authority South Wangaratta brigade volunteer, put a bill to the Legislative Council to amend firefighters’ presumptive rights to compensation that have been available since 2019.

The rights mean firefighters with a cancer diagnosis do not have to prove their disease was caused by work.

Ms Maxwell said the addition of cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers to Victoria’s compensation schedule should be made “in the interests of fairness and equality” and because of the growing incidence of these cancers among North American firefighters.

“Firefighters across this state – whether they are career firefighters, forest firefighters or the incredible network of CFA volunteers that our regions rely on so heavily – face enormous risk every time they respond to a fire,” she told Parliament.

“That risk is not limited to protection of our local communities. Our teams travel interstate and internationally to fight fires in times of catastrophic emergency.

“The risks are intense and wide-ranging. There’s smoke inhalation, exposure to chemicals, extreme heat, ultraviolet radiation, noise, dust and the risk of crush injuries from collapsing structures.

“Exposure is also not just at the fire-ground. Contaminants remain on firefighting equipment and need to be thoroughly cleaned.

“There has been a real shift away from the image of gear caked in soot as a status symbol and a greater understanding of how chemical leaching can affect a person’s health.”

Ms Maxwell said the number of women firefighters in Australia was still low – insufficient for research epidemiologists to determine the risk of female-specific cancers developing from women’s exposure to fire.

“Female firefighters make up less than five per cent of the overall workforce,” she said.

“They are greater in number in Victoria’s forest firefighter sector – I’m told 25pc – and while participation rates will grow, it will still be some time before they are sufficient in number to provide researchers with reliable study sets.

“But the United States and Canada have led the charge on presumptive cancer rights for firefighters, where studies predict that female firefighters get a minimum of 20pc more cancers than the general population.

“In 2019, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency published a paper Emerging Health and Safety Issues Among Women in the Fire Service.

“This report stated the incidence of cervical cancer is more than four times higher in female firefighters[i].

“It suggested that elevated incidence and mortality could be associated with exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the firefighter population, which could elevate the incidence and mortality of reproductive cancers among female firefighters.

“Another US study confirmed that female firefighters are exposed to higher levels of some PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) compared to office workers.”

Ms Maxwell said she had spoken with various fire services and their workers and the United Firefighters Union, Volunteer Fire Brigades of Victoria and members of both Fire Services Victoria and Country Fire Authority about the changes she proposed.

“We should not delay in bringing this change to the presumptive rights scheme until there are enough female firefighters to provide the evidence that exists now for men,” she said.

“That evidence could be years or decades away and, in the meantime, will deny equality to those female firefighters, those trailblazers, who serve us now and who might need this now.”

[ May 25, 2022 ]

[i] Emerging Health and Safety Issues Among Women in the Fire Service (2019),  p42