STUART GRIMLEY MP

Member for Western Victoria
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party

Emergency Service Workers Presumption Legislation: Motion

GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (15:17:32): I move: That in relation to part 4 of the Victoria State Emergency Service Act 2005, this house: (1) acknowledges: (a) that the process that emergency service workers have to undertake in order to claim workers compensation is often daunting, stressful and challenging, particularly if the claim is related to mental health; (b) the existence of current basic presumptive legislation laws in Victoria, but notes a lack of support for those suffering from post-traumatic stress; (c) the cumulative impacts of exposure to violence and conflict, which emergency services workers are often subjected to; (d) that legislating a presumptive compensation scheme for emergency service workers will reduce the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress injuries and assist people in accessing support services more efficiently and without further trauma; (2) calls on the government to establish a presumptive compensation scheme which places the onus of proof from the workers to the employer, by allowing emergency service workers and volunteers engaged in firefighting or life-saving duties to access workers compensation that will: (a) allow workers compensation claims that are post-traumatic stress related to be treated like any other work-related injury; and (b) ensure that the presumptive legislation will not remove the ability for an employer to dispute the claim if there is sufficient reason to believe that the injury is not work related and to avoid retrospective claims being made. Post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) is all too common an occurrence nowadays. I refer to it as an injury as opposed to a disorder, as ‘disorder’ can bring about stigma and further exacerbate a person’s mental health issues. When you break a leg, people are quite forward in inquiring about your health, progress and rehabilitation. A broken bone is a physical injury. It can be clearly seen, and there is no stigma associated with it whatsoever. Sometimes a broken bone can even be seen as a badge of honour. How many times have you heard about a champion racing car driver or motorcycle rider speak of the broken bones they have had over their career? They talk about it like it is some sort of rite of passage. A broken mind in our society does not, however, have the same connotations associated with it. A broken mind cannot be seen from the outside. A broken mind displays many different symptoms. A broken mind is not as easily mended as a broken bone. It is not as simple as putting a plaster cast on. A broken mind is an injury; it is not a disorder. Those of us within the chamber who have experienced a traumatic event, be it a car accident, the death of a friend or family member or, even worse, seeing someone die in front of them, will know how it has affected them.

You will know how it has affected your behaviour, your thoughts and your feelings, and you may even know how you have changed your emotions and behaviour and how that has affected those closest to you. Imagine, then, having such a traumatic event repeated over and over and over and over again. Imagine the toll that places on your mental health, your mind and your now broken mind. Welcome to the life of an emergency services worker. In my maiden speech I made reference to the jobs I was part of as a serving police officer—talking to people in the midst of committing suicide, comforting those who were dying in front of my eyes, supporting family members following the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one and, dreadfully, trawling through thousands of child abuse images on a paedophile’s computer—and of course there is the dreaded death notification door knock. Being an emergency services worker takes a special type of person. In means that at times you have to take the horrific situation in front of you and somehow put it aside until the job is done. Some people move on from these scenes of devastation quite readily, while with others it takes some time. Every emergency services worker, no matter how well they appear to be coping with traumatic events, will at some stage in their life recall and reflect on what they have seen, what they have experienced. For some that is where the trauma ends, but for others that is where the mind breaks. Imagine, then, if you will, having served your community as best you possibly could, helping those most in need, being part of a person’s life, albeit fleetingly, at their lowest ebb and sacrificing your own wellbeing for the benefit of a safer and more secure community—and doing it for the greater good. Imagine, from those events, having a broken mind—a post-traumatic stress injury—and being unable to leave your home, let alone function effectively as a worker, but still having bills to pay, a mortgage to maintain and a family to feed, going from being a dedicated emergency services worker to feeling anxious, depressed, angry, fragile, tired, feeling like you cannot cope anymore and being at your own lowest ebb. Who is there to pick up the pieces where you once stood?

Probably by this stage you have inadvertently pushed your friends and family aside, sought medical treatment and probably sought some sort of compensation to assist with rebuilding your broken mind and your life—something to pay the bills, the mortgage and the medical expenses, something to get you back to the person that you once were before you dedicated your life to helping others. I commend the commitment shown by emergency services workers and volunteers to ensuring the safety of their communities, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of all Victorians in expressing immense appreciation for their work. It is important that they are supported in their time of need, just as they supported us, and continue to, day in and day out. The work that our emergency services do for us cannot be taken for granted. It is important that the Victorian government is there for our emergency workers when they need it most. The lasting effects on emergency services workers’ mental health and stability is something that cannot continue to be overlooked in the legislative process of workers compensation. An article released in September last year by Medicine Today stated that in Australia instances of PTSD are more than twice as prevalent in emergency services workers than in the general population. Furthermore, one in 10 currently active emergency services workers will have symptoms suggestive of post-traumatic stress injuries. Rates may even be higher among retired workers. A report released by Beyondblue in 2018 brought to light some alarming findings with regard to the prevalence of mental health issues and suicide in Australian emergency services workers. During the study 39 per cent of employees and 33 per cent of volunteers reported having been diagnosed with a mental illness by a mental health professional. This is an alarming rate compared to 20 per cent of all adults in Australia. The report also found that one in five employees get very poor quality sleep and that rates of suicidal thoughts in emergency services workers are significantly higher than the national average. To put it simply, our emergency services workers are suffering from mental health issues significantly more than the general population due to the extreme levels of stress and trauma they are exposed to when undertaking essential work in keeping us safe.

Compensation for their physical injuries sustained through work currently provides great support to our emergency services workers and volunteers; however, existing compensation schemes in Victoria fail to address the significance of the issue of mental health and post-traumatic stress injuries, and this further stigmatises these illnesses in the workplace, putting unnecessary strain on those who are keeping our community safe. I commend the Tasmanian government on their recent action to pass legislation to make it easier for public sector workers to access compensation for PTSI. The crux of this legislation is that diagnosed claims of PTSI will be automatically accepted by the government as work-related, which will ease the compensation process for those suffering. This action will greatly help to reduce the stigma around PTSI in the workforce. This is a great leap forward for Tasmania, and I sincerely hope that the Victorian government follows the example set and will act to ensure that similar support is given to Victorian emergency services workers. The existing legislation within Victoria pertaining to injury compensation for emergency services workers needs to reflect the traumatic nature and urgency of difficulties that victims of PTSI are going through. Onus of proof in cases of workers compensation needs to be shifted from the victim of the injuries and the incidents to the WorkCover authority. Our emergency services workers should not feel like they are fighting another battle when seeking compensation for injuries sustained in service.

This motion concerns itself with all emergency services workers, whether paid or volunteer, who apply for workers compensation for post-traumatic injuries that they have succumbed to as a result of their work experiences. Essentially, and unless proven otherwise by the WorkCover authority, for every case of a diagnosed PTSI their work is assumed to be the cause. This reverse onus thereby offers some relief of the pressure already burdened upon the sufferer. It is hard enough dealing with PTSI yourself and with your friends and family, let alone having to wade through the pressures being placed on you by the WorkCover authority to prove your work has resulted in your PTSI injury. Those with PTSI should not have to have their symptoms further exacerbated by the extenuating and magnifying processes of seeking workers compensation. I commend this motion to the house and trust that we, as leaders within our community and as decision-makers, will show respect to our emergency services workers and do whatever we can to assist and give back to those who have given up so much for us.

GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (16:12:30): I would like to thank all the speakers today for speaking on this motion. In particular it is pleasing to see the bipartisan support from the crossbench, the government, non-government members, the coalition and the Greens—all the parties coming together to support what I believe is such an important motion. I also echo Mr Bourman’s sentiments in that at some stage this does need to become legislation. You are right. A motion is one thing, but to make it set in stone in legislation is another, so that is something that we will be pursuing very strongly. Mr O’Donohue spoke about the importance of mental health recovery. He mentioned the assistance dogs program. That is also something that we are pursuing strongly, along with Mr O’Donohue and the coalition. I hope that these are some of the programs that the government can look at introducing.

They are very cost-minimal programs, but the outcomes for people with post-traumatic stress injury or PTSD are just incredible from what the results have shown, so we hope that these programs and the legislation will become part of this movement as well. It is all about raising awareness for mental health, in particular in this case for emergency services workers, but it is also about just having the discussion about mental health issues and how they can sometimes come on quite quickly and out of nowhere. For instance, after my maiden speech I sat down that night and I thought, ‘Gee, some of those events that I actually went through have actually affected me’. Some people react in different ways. That for me was the end of it, but for others that could be the start of that journey where their mind starts to break down. So it is important that we look after all the retired emergency services workers and also those that are currently serving. Just on a side note, I am wearing these nice pink and blue socks today.

They are from Read the Play, which is a mental health program running out of Geelong at the moment. It is all about ‘Sock it to Mental Illness’, so I thought it appropriate that I put on this pair of socks today. Thanks to Sirsock for all of those as well. They do a great job. Like I said, it is important that we raise these issues and get it done, but more importantly that we actually legislate it and do some good programs. In relation to the amendment, I do welcome the amendment and I thank the government for proposing it and coming on board to a certain extent, although from our perspective we were hoping for a step forward. We probably got half a step forward, but it is in the right direction nevertheless. I acknowledge that, and I do thank the government for their discussions. We have also had discussions with other key stakeholders, including the Police Association Victoria. Mr Gatt has also been appreciative of our efforts, and he is very keen to get this over the line as well. The amendment makes references to allowing claimants to access medical and like expenses quite quickly upon application or submission for workers compensation, which we recognise.

It does expedite the process and enable workers to access those support services a lot quicker, and we do appreciate and welcome that. We note that the amendment still does not allow efficient access to funds other than the medical. Perhaps that is something that we can look at when the legislation comes around. It also leaves out the burden of proof that the claimant still has to go through; it does not reverse the onus of proof, which is what we initially hoped for. But like I said, it is a step in the right direction. I look forward to working with the Andrews government in pursuing the changes on top of this motion today, and hopefully one day it will become legislation. We continue to show our support for the emergency services workers, who—as you said, Acting President Melhem—are often the ones that go into these horrific situations when people need them most. When most people are running out of a burning building, they are the ones who are running into it, so we need to look after those who look after us. Amendment agreed to; amended motion agreed to.

STUART GRIMLEY MP

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