Emergency workers fight for accident compensation

Issue 
Ambulance worker Danny Hill says 10 co-workers have committed suicide in the past five years.

Emergency service workers rallied on October 29 to oppose attempts by the Victorian government to introduce sweeping changes to the Transport Accident Act, which would take away emergency workers’ common law right to seek injury compensation for psychological injury, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Peter Marshall, Victorian Secretary of the United Firefighter Union, told the rally: “63% of firefighters have moderate post-traumatic stress levels, 17% have full blown post-traumatic stress levels, and that is on the increase.

“This is a government that is doing all they can to attack emergency service workers, take away their entitlements, but most importantly, [to] make the service unworkable. It is a disgrace, it will be opposed, up until the next election. [The government] will be made accountable for this.”

Danny Hill, Assistant State Secretary of Ambulance Employees Australia (AEA), addressed the rally and painted a disturbing picture of the impact of trauma on ambulance workers.

“We have had ten suicides in Ambulance Victoria in the past five years,” he said. “Ten of my workmates have taken their own lives because they have suffered from post-traumatic stress and depression, from anxiety, from things that we haven’t understood, from problems that we haven’t picked up yet.

“PTSD, anxiety and depression [are] real in our workforce today. But the Premier is looking for a way to save a buck.

“[Premier Denis Napthine] has been humiliated by the ambulance crisis. He has been humiliated by the cuts to the firefighters and now he is vindictive, he is heartless and he is looking for the way to hurt us in the most offensive way.”

Ambulance workers have been locked in a battle with the Victorian government over better wages and conditions. Victorian ambulance workers are highly trained but among the lowest paid in the country. The Victorian ambulance system is at breaking point, with emergency response times worsening over the past four years.

The state government said the unions’ claims are “completely untrue”. A letter from Victorian assistant treasurer, Gordon Rich-Phillips to the AEA claimed that emergency workers will continue to be able to access compensation through schemes such as WorkCover “exactly as they do now for injuries such as PTSD”.

Danny Hill told Green Left Weekly the minister’s letter doesn’t ease the union’s concerns, because of the limited circumstances under which a worker can claim compensation for PTSD under current statutory schemes.

He said: “You may not show symptoms [of PTSD] until three years after [an] accident, or you may get symptoms and then they disappear and then they come back three years later, so for [the government] to say that it has to be continuous after three years is just impossible … and a complete misunderstanding of the reality of the circumstances.”

Hill said if emergency workers attend an accident outside of work hours, they won’t be covered. “If you suffer PTSD as a result of that accident then you are no longer covered, you’re no longer considered a victim of the accident.

“It can be a career-ending injury.”

Hill said the way the changes have been introduced was a deliberate move to get the legislation in under the radar. “They haven’t consulted with any of the emergency services at all, they’ve just brought it in and they’ve done it very silently.”

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