Volunteer bushfire officers and regional shires in WA are concerned the threat of jail or large fines under new West Australian workplace legislation could see fewer people volunteering to fight fires in rural areas this summer.
- The WA Work Health and Safety Act will see all workplaces come under a single safety Act
- Regional shires and bushfire coordinators say they need more information about how the act applies to volunteers
- The new workplace rules include a dramatic increase of some penalties, which cannot be insured against
The WA Government’s Work Health and Safety Bill — which introduces industrial manslaughter as a crime — passed through parliament in November last year.
It is expected to come into operation in January next year.
Regional shire staff, farmers and volunteer fire coordinators have flagged concerns the new workplace rules of the act could make them liable as individuals for large fines or jail time if someone is hurt or injured while volunteer fire fighting in a regional area.
Chief fire control officer with the Shire of Dandaragan, Richard Brown, has been a fire officer for 30 years and chief for five, but he said he was so concerned he would step down from his voluntary leadership position.
“This act is going to have massive ramifications for the agricultural industry,” he said.
“I have to deal with that for my (farming) business. I’m not going to expose myself outside of that to a very high-risk situation done on a voluntary basis.
“Politicians will say ‘you’re not exposed, you’re covered by the legislation’, but the reality is that is OK so long as you follow every procedure and policy that is in place.
“As soon as someone steps outside of that, the chain of responsibility becomes pretty lengthy.”
Mr Brown said it would be practically impossible for all volunteers and their vehicles and personal equipment such as loaders and graders to comply with standards under the new act.
“Who is going to fight the fires?” he said.
Penalties under the new act range between five and 20 years’ imprisonment for individuals, along with fines of up to $10 million for a body corporate.
State government needs to step up
Mr Brown and Chapman Valley shire CEO Maurice Battilana agreed it was difficult to get clear information about the new act and its potential consequences for farmers, volunteers and shire councillors.
They said clarity was desperately needed.
“Under the previous legislation, you could insure against (liability risk), and there were some professional indemnity if something went wrong,” Mr Battilana said.
“Under this new legislation, our understanding is that there is not any indemnity, and you cannot insure against it.
“At the risk of sounding unfair, I think some of these legislators don’t know where the real world is.”
He said legal responsibility for fires should rest with the state government.
“In all honesty, I think it’s time the (1954 Bushfire Act) was changed so that the state government is also the head of power under for bushfire fighting rather than the local governments,” he said.
“I hear the parliamentarians saying we’re only falling in line with the other states, and I understand that.
“What they’re missing telling us is the other states don’t have local governments controlling bushfires.
“So, the unique thing is, yes, we are falling in line with the work health and safety legislation of other states, yet we still have local government responsible for volunteer bushfire fighting.”
‘Responsibility on workers’
In a written statement, WA Minister for industrial relations Stephen Dawson said the new WHS Act placed the responsibility on workers. In this case, volunteers to ensure they took reasonable steps to keep themselves and others as safe as was reasonably practicable.
“If they are doing this, we do not see a circumstance in which they could be prosecuted for their actions,” he said
“A farmer cannot be held responsible for his employees when they are engaged in voluntary activity away from his workplace.
He said it was important to note that these laws had been in place in most jurisdictions across Australia for nearly 10 years.
“We do not believe they have had any impact on the rates of volunteering in the other states,” Mr Dawson said
Impact on volunteer numbers
Mr Battilana said he was concerned new volunteer training requirements under the act might deter people from volunteering in local bushfire brigades.
“The training requirements and recruiting requirements that are now going to be said as benchmarks are going to make it very difficult for volunteers to participate and to keep those levels up,” he said.
“We are not shirking from the issue that there still needs to be training, we understand that, there still needs to be processes and procedures we understand, that but our fear is that with you are going to drive volunteers away from these particular services.
Mr Battilana said he believed it was not too late for the government to make changes.
“This country would not survive without its volunteers. They have to protect these people. If we had to pay career firefighters to put out bush fires it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
The state government said it would commence an education campaign soon on the roles and responsibilities of volunteers.
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