Women firefighters deserve equal compensation rights

Media statement

November 1, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP has welcomed the Victorian government’s commitment to study the incidence of female-specific cancers in firefighters and consider adding these to a schedule of occupational health impacts eligible for compensation.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria last week in the Legislative Council pushed to have ovarian, cervical and uterine cancers included in a legislated list of occupational diseases and injuries covered by the Forests Amendment (Forest Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation) Bill 2021.

But she did not press her amendment to a vote when the government committed, during the debate, to seek the latest medical and scientific advice and work with her to consider the reforms she proposed.

“The bill implements an occupational cancer presumptive rights compensation scheme for forest firefighters modelled on the scheme that passed Parliament in 2019 for Fire Services Victoria and Country Fire Authority members,” Ms Maxwell said.

“But it does not extend presumptive compensation cover for firefighting women who develop cancer, nor to contractors or employees working for forestry management companies.

“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 who protect our property and people.

“Exposure to every fire increases that risk and quite a lot of research has been done, though the samples are often skewed by gender.

“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, while 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 of incidence in female reproductive organs have been inconclusive because of the relatively small proportion of women firefighters compared with men, 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.

Ms Maxwell said Canada had become the first jurisdiction to add female-specific cancers to its firefighter and emergency services presumptive compensation scheme “out of good faith and caution”.

“With Canada’s lead, others will follow, and I am very hopeful that the amendment I’ve proposed will be incorporated into future legislation and extend these presumptive rights to all female firefighters,” she said.

Senior government minister Shaun Leane told Parliament that he thought all MPs shared Ms Maxwell’s aspiration to ensure the compensation scheme was supportive of women in Victoria’s fire and emergency services.

“I want to thank Ms Maxwell again for raising this important matter regarding her amendment today,” he said during the debate on October 27.

“The Minister for Emergency Services, Jaclyn Symes, is a massive advocate for women in the emergency services and for those on the front line, and I understand (she) 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 Minister is happy to involve Ms Maxwell when speaking to women that 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.”

Ms Maxwell welcomed the commitment.

“I really look forward to us working together to ensure that female firefighters are encouraged both to work in the field and to know that there will be further research to ensure equality and that women will feel they have that same right afforded to them as men now have under the amended scheme,” she said.

“I also hope that more work is done in the future to find ways to recognise the risk of exposure for forest industry brigades that currently number about 800 people, of which about 15 per cent are women, and how to extend them appropriate presumptive rights to compensation.”

View my speech in Parliament in Parliament on October 26, and the government’s response.