Today is International Workers' Memorial Day and in the words of Industrial Workers of the World co-founder Mother Jones (Mary Harris) we should “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”.
The struggle for safer working conditions, mitigating hazards and protecting the health and wellbeing of workers is the primary focus of unions.
Worksafe New Zealand recorded 110 work-related deaths in 2019, another 63 in 2020 and already 4 this year. But these statistics are not a true reflection of the death toll as it excludes deaths from occupational disease, natural causes (like heart attacks) or self harm. There is no record of the actual death toll.
Today, we reflect on the ongoing tragic deaths of workers due to unsafe work conditions, exposures to hazardous and carcinogenic substances, and those we have lost as a result of exposure to trauma. We think about the comrades and colleagues we have lost, we think about their families and friends, and we offer our sincere support to anyone struggling with a workplace illness or injury. Everyone should go home after work, every family should get to enjoy their loved ones, no one should be left to battle with crippling mental health issues, and no one should have their retirement years cut short, all because of their job or service to the community.
Today is an opportunity to reflect on the work done and to rejuvenate our pledge to take every opportunity to fight for safer working conditions.
For our members, the reality of occupational cancer and mental illness claiming the lives of current serving or retired members is too close. Almost weekly the NZPFU is asked to support a member or retired member making ACC claims to have their occupational cancer or mental injury covered. It is with great sadness that some of those members do not survive long enough to see the result of their case, or succumb shortly afterwards.
Without unions, the most basic safety standards such as hours of work, breaks, ablution facilities and training would not exist. For some workers they do not even have those basic standards even here in New Zealand. And even when we collectively achieve some improvements it is always a fight to maintain those standards and build better working conditions.
The NZPFU National Committee, Local representatives, and our other representatives on various committees and working groups selflessly dedicate their time and energy to preserve, protect and promote safe working conditions.
To achieve safe systems of work for our members is a constant struggle. Here are a few of the ongoing battles that directly impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of our members and the response to the community they serve:
- FENZ is determined to undermine the qualification and experience requirements that underpin the career firefighter’s rank system. That system is a primary protection on the incident ground. FENZ’s appointment of non-qualified and experienced incident controllers and commanders is a serious risk to the health and safety of the firefighters under their command, and to the health and safety of the community they respond to.
- FENZ is yet to enforce best practice station design that removes PPE from the engine bay, and provides designated clean and dirty zones (with appropriate transition and ablution facilities) to mitigate the risk of ongoing contamination of carcinogens. Even in recent cases where FENZ have planned refurbishment of old stations they have refused to implement best practice to mitigate ongoing exposures.
- FENZ deliberately undermined the campaign for presumptive legislation to recognise firefighters’ occupational cancer by secretly signing up to an ACC toxicology panel. As a result, firefighters still have to fight for recognition of their occupational cancer and spend precious hours (sometimes their last weeks) preparing their case to be considered by the panel.
- FENZ has failed to put in appropriate mental health programmes for firefighters, fire investigators and emergency call centre dispatchers. Our members can only access acute assistance (counselling and psychologists) but even that is refused at times. We have members with mental illness consistent with exposures to trauma being disciplined for their behaviour, or being forced into medical retirement.
- FENZ has failed to have a proper maintenance and replacement programme for appliances. Fire trucks break down on the way to calls, or pumps fail leaving firefighters suddenly exposed to the fire without water. Regularly there are not enough fire trucks in the country, and only one or two operational heavy appliances leaving firefighters to respond to high-rise buildings or large industrial sites without the necessary capability to rescue and attack.
- FENZ has failed to have a proper maintenance and replacement programme for equipment. Just this month the majority of FENZ gas detectors were expected to fail and it was weeks before the replacements would arrive. FENZ is spending funding on leasing gas detectors instead of having a programme to ensure new detectors were purchased before they failed, and failed en masse.
- FENZ has failed to plan and establish sufficient stations and firefighters to be able to effectively respond to communities. Despite the surges in population, risk factors including traffic, industry and infrastructure that comes with increased populations, extreme weather events, and new responses such as medical response the number of professional career firefighters has barely changed since the 1990s. The demands on volunteers has grown with some volunteer brigades expected to respond to more than 400 calls a year impacting on their income, their employers’ business and their personal commitments. That is an unfair reliance on volunteers to prop up a fire service through free labour.
- FENZ has no system in place for assessing, monitoring or addressing workloads, and is implementing a restructure that will only exasperate the pressures fire risk management officers and station officers face now.
It is a very real risk that the dismantling of safe systems of work, unreliable appliances and equipment, and the insufficient levels of career firefighters will result in serious injury or the death of a firefighter, or a member of the community. Safe systems of work save lives – those undertaking the work and those that come in contact with that work.
It is a very real risk that the occupational and workload stress experienced by some of our members will result in serious illness or worse.
We will continue to fight for the living – every day, every opportunity and every way.