Northland firefighters are being left at the mercy of work-related cancers by a Government distracted by Covid-19 and inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU) national vice-president and Christchurch-based career firefighter, Joseph Stanley said the Government had put conversations on the backburner regarding a law change that would mean career firefighters could pre-qualify for ACC in the event of a cancer diagnosis.
"That is a big concern to us that we know PPE doesn't save us and it doesn't protect us and the Government is not prepared to step up and say we will look after you then," Stanley said.
But Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) say they have been working hard over the years to reduce cancer risks for firefighters.
International research showed firefighters had a 102 per cent greater risk of testicular cancer than the general population, a 51 per cent greater risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and a 32 per cent greater risk of brain cancer and malignant melanoma because of their exposure to cancer-causing toxins.
ACC has managed less than four work-related claims with cover for cancer by Northland career firefighters in approximately 13 years, ending July 2019.
Nationally there have been five ACC cancer claims by career firefighters in the same time period that reported varying lung, bone marrow, and prostate-related cancers.
However, firefighters treated for cancer less than five years before their claim is lodged have their requests managed by FENZ rather than ACC.
The Advocate has approached FENZ for the number of cancer-related claims they received from the firefighters based in the region.
Structure fires were pegged as the biggest risk of carcinogenic exposure for Northland's 38 career firefighters - all based in Whangārei Station - and 700 volunteer firefighters - as well as the country's 1829 career firefighters and 12,000-plus volunteers.
This was because of an increased use of synthetic materials in homes and buildings and repetitive exposure to them during fires, Stanley said.
Whangārei firefighters responded to the highest number of structure fires in Northland with 83 call outs from March 1, 2020 to February 28 this year.
The Kerikeri Volunteer Fire Brigade was the second busiest brigade with 41 structure fires. Hot on their heels was the Kaitaia Volunteer Fire Brigade, who responded to 36 structure fires.
Overall the region's firefighters battled around 557 structure fires from more than 6000 call outs – which included vegetation fires, rescues, medical events, hazardous material emergencies, and vehicle crashes – between March 2020 and February 28.
Inadequacies in the Level 2 Structural Firefighting PPE to protect firefighters from carcinogenic exposure had inflamed the risks they faced at house and building fires, Stanley said.
The issue was addressed by FENZ who launched trials of improved structural fire PPE. Changes in the uniform included the addition of vapour skirts at the waist and legs to prevent carcinogenic vapours seeping into the uniform.
But firefighters were dismayed by a lack of frontline input into the new gear, said Stanley – who is also a NZPFU national uniform advisory group representative.
He wanted to see sufficient mitigation strategies put in place to keep firefighters safe – which did not include FENZ's latest purchase of warm weather jackets for firefighters.
"At the moment we have issues with the protection our current PPE provides us at structural fires so, for us, it seems unnecessary to focus on a warm jacket when the uniform we wear at the coal face isn't meeting our requirements."
The issues around PPE were concerning for firefighters because when their "safety nets" failed they could not count on the Government for help with occupational cancer.
Stanley's comments referred to the push by firefighters for more cancers to be recognised as scientifically linked to their occupation. The legislative change would qualify career firefighters for ACC without having to prove their cancer was caused by their work.
Volunteer firefighters – alongside all volunteers – are unable to claim for work-related cancers due to the wording in ACC's current legislation.
Presumptive legislation exists in Australia, Canada, and some states in the United States.
The Advocate reached out to government representatives but was re-directed to FENZ.
With legislative change a matter for Parliament, ACC and FENZ in the meantime responded to concerns in February last year with the introduction of a tool used by the Toxicology Panel to assess and provide cover for work-related cancers that would otherwise go unrecognised.
FENZ deputy chief executive people, Brendan Nally, credited the tool for 13 successful claims made by career firefighters with occupational cancer, who had been "waiting and hoping for ACC support".
"This was not possible prior to the establishment of the panel and is a step in the right direction," Nally said. "We will continue to support any firefighters experiencing occupational cancer."
But Stanley said the tool meant firefighters still had to fight for recognition of their occupational cancer and use time they may not have pulling together their case for the toxicology panel.
Muri Whenua area manager Wipari Henwood said FENZ took the safety of its firefighters seriously – evident in the long list of improvements the organisation has made to reduce the risks of cancer.