Every day Victorian firefighters assume enormous personal risk in the course of serving the community.
At every house fire, factory inferno or chemical spill they attend, firefighters are exposed to an array of potentially lethal hazards.
These include a disturbing cocktail of toxic fumes, smoke, vapours and chemicals which firefighters may inhale, absorb through the skin or come in to direct contact with.
Inevitably, this exposure must take a toll and studies have revealed that firefighters are developing many insidious forms of cancer at alarming rates.
Last year, following an extensive enquiry, a federal Senate committee confirmed these dangers and recognised that firefighters do suffer a much higher incidence of cancer than members of the general population because of the cumulative exposure to chemicals and other toxins they face throughout their careers.
The Commonwealth Government reacted responsibly to the Senate committee’s findings, promptly passing legislation granting workers’ compensation coverage to any Commonwealth or ACT firefighter on its payroll who contracted one of 12 prescribed cancers.
It’s a logical response that recognises the risks these brave men and women face in the execution of their duties.
However, the logic appears lost on the Baillieu Government as it continues to resist calls to afford Victorian firefighters the same ability to claim compensation through WorkCover as that afforded to their federal colleagues.
It’s an absurd situation where a firefighter working out of Melbourne Airport on the Commonwealth payroll should be able to claim compensation for contracting one of these debilitating and often lethal cancers whereas his Metropolitan Fire Brigade colleague from just up the road in Sunshine cannot without going down the path of litigation.
The Senate committee heard that firefighters enter the service in the top five to 10 per cent of the population in health and fitness terms but within a few short years of employment they are between two and five times more likely to develop one of the 12 cancers on the list.
Under current Victorian laws, firefighters who develop cancer must prove that their employment was a significant contributing factor in the development of their illness in order to claim compensation.
This burden of proof is often difficult to discharge given that firefighters invariably attend countless critical incidents during their careers, making the identification of the precise chemicals or toxins that may have caused their cancer a challenging exercise.
These cases are also complicated by a Workcover insurer desperate to seek other explanations for the possible cause of these cancers.
As such, firefighters may face protracted and lengthy litigation if they wish to pursue their basic Workcover entitlements.
This only adds to the hardship and stress they are already suffering as they battle the disease.
By comparison, Commonwealth firefighters, as well as firefighters in various overseas jurisdictions in Canada and the United States, now benefit from “presumptive legislation”. This legislation presumes that a firefighter with a recognised type of cancer has likely sustained it as a result of employment, and is thus entitled to compensation, unless otherwise proven.
Surely it is time for the Baillieu government to follow the lead of its federal counterpart and introduce this long overdue and necessary legislation.
Craig Sidebottom is a Slater & Gordon practice group leader specialising in workers compensation claims.