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This article was published in “the volunteer fire fighter”, Vol 7 No 2 (Summer).

Introduction

No matter how attentive and conscientious you are about observing health and safety rules on the fire ground, at the brigade station, attending training sessions, conducting fund raising or assisting with community education programs the potential for workplace injuries is ever-present. Injuries that seem insignificant at the time of the incident, can turn into a long term battle to gain financial assistance to cover the cost of medical expenses because we did not fill in an injury/accident incident report. After reporting the incident to your next higher in command or who is supervising the activity, source yourself at the earliest opportunity (within 48 hours usually) a Report of Workplace Injury or Illness form and complete it thoroughly and comprehensively. Before passing it onto your supervisor ensure you keep a copy of the report and when you have passed it on ensure you follow up on a regular basic to ensure the correct processes are being followed.

Not only can these injuries put members at risk of hospitalisation – or even death – it also can reduce the team productivity and adversely affect team morale. Team vigilance at all levels is critical in maintaining a safe environment and preventing accidents from happening.

If you are aware of a dangerous situation or know of someone doing a dangerous act that could cause serious injury or death to persons and you do not stop or attempt to cease the activity you are not conducting due diligence and you may be liable under Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Case History

A recent case was presented by a current RFS Volunteer to a VFFA Executive Meeting and it showed the utter frustration of a Volunteer being injured on the fire ground. The Volunteer’s injury was an ongoing one and over the years the RFS had accepted every medical certificate from the treating doctor allowing the Volunteer to go on the fire line with restrictions in place as per the certificates, Work Cover also accepted the certificates. The Volunteer recently needed to have surgery which had the Volunteer requiring four months of work. Although the Volunteer was entitled to workers compensation payments, there was still quite a significant short fall compared to their regular income.

The Volunteer called the RFSA after reading an article in the Bush Fire Bulletin Magazine (2011 Vol 33 No 1) re: Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the RFS and the RFSA concerning workers compensation for injured Volunteers, which offered possible further assistance to injured Volunteers outside the workers compensation act and is assessed on a case by case basis.

The MOU was signed off on by the RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons and a past President of the RFSA, Brian McKinlay.

MOU-RFS-and-RFSA-Workers-Comp-01

Click on the image (above) to view the MOU (scanned pdf)

The RFSA encouraged the Volunteer to apply for assistance through the RFS, so they did and then regretted it. The RFS told the Volunteer that they knew nothing about the Memorandum of Understanding. The Volunteer did not accept this and kept on pushing the fact that they should be aware of the MOU particularly as the MOU had been signed off on by the RFS Commissioner and they just wanted a Yes or No answer to their request.

The RFS ended up making the Volunteer jump through many hoops and even told the Volunteer that they were no longer allowed to return to the fire ground or get into a tanker…..even though the Volunteer had a medical certificate, which stated that they were fit for most firefighting duties. The Volunteer was told at one stage by the RFS, that if they wanted any chance of being able to return to the fire ground, they need to go and have an Ethos Health Medical Assessment done through their treating doctor for which the RFS organises. The Volunteer did everything that the RFS asked them to do in regards to getting supposed assistance under the MOU.

It took 18 months for the RFS to eventually tell the Volunteer that in order to get possible assistance under the MOU, they needed to be sent for a medical assessment, which must be carried out by a doctor organised through the RFS even though the volunteer had already been sent for several medical assessments by Work Cover.

The case presented and demonstrated the Volunteers resolve to stay with their conviction that they were in the right and they were not going to quit until the full process of the review was conducted and the required outcome was achieved. With the threat of losing their fulltime job and not being able to attend their normal workplace due to surgery from the RFS workplace injury, it was now becoming increasingly paramount that this incident investigation be completed. But as each request from the RFS was completed by the Volunteer, yet another surfaced to be actioned and more information was required and more frustration was experienced and so it went on.

After many interviews, phone calls, emails and medicals expert visits, perseverance and the fact that the Volunteer paid for their own physio assessment proving to the RFS that they could do firefighting activities finally won out for the Volunteer and the Volunteer was allowed back on the tanker with some medical exemption.

During this 18 month period, the Volunteer felt as is the RFS wanted them to just leave…..but the Volunteer refused to do this purely based on principal. The Volunteer ended up telling the RFS what they could do with their supposed MOU after having a meeting with several RFS HQ staff who disclosed that the MOU itself, was still a working process.

Full credit has to go to this Volunteer for not giving up and resigning from the RFS, it’s a good example of what can be achieved if you have the determination and grit.

What can you do in the mean time?

Just because you cannot work on the fire ground until you are declared fit, this does not mean you can’t attend training such as courses, conducting training lessons and assisting with the day to day activities of the brigade. To stay active within in your RFS team environment is what will keep you focused and remain a valuable member. It’s all too often that circumstances such as these are strung out as long as possible to frustrate the Volunteer in giving up and resigning from the RFS and then the problem no longer requires further investigation.

Other workplace injuries

Injuries in the workplace cover many topics not just ones that we can see.

These also include fatigue and stress.

Fatigue

If someone is pushed or pushes themselves beyond reasonable limits to stay on top of the workload, the results often are physical and mental exhaustion. This translates to impaired judgment, slower reflexes in operating machinery or motor vehicles, a delayed response to emergency situations and inattention to details and instructions. An example of this is working your normal fulltime job of 8-12 hours then turning out to a callout that may require to you drive a tanker to an incident or deployment when you have not have had a sufficient rest period. You are now in that exhaustion zone where your body reflexes are affected, your response at a critical time could mean the difference between life and death. It is your decision alone that dictates whether you are fit to carry out your duties and this comes down to ‘being responsible for your own actions’.

Stress

Stress is a natural human response to pressure when faced with challenging and sometimes dangerous situations. That pressure is not only about what’s happening around us, but also about demands we place on ourselves. There are many different ways to deal with stress, once you understand the causes. Don’t let stress hijack your life.

Learn the signs and causes of stress overload and what you can do to help yourself. Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or anxious.

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