This Chapter describes the immediate health risks to firefighters during the Hazelwood mine fire, and considers the methods employed by fire services, GDF Suez and the Victorian WorkCover Authority to minimise these risks. The reference to firefighters in this Chapter where not otherwise specified refers to firefighters from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, employees and volunteers from the Country Fire Authority, and firefighters from the Hazelwood mine, including GDF Suez employees and contractors.
Under its Terms of Reference the Board of Inquiry is required to examine the adequacy and effectiveness of the response to the Hazelwood mine fire by GDF Suez, emergency services, and other relevant government agencies and any other matter that is reasonably incidental to this. This Chapter addresses those aspects of the Terms of Reference.
Over the course of the Hazelwood mine fire, a number of firefighters from the fire services and GDF Suez required medical treatment. Fourteen fire service firefighters and 12 GDF Suez staff presented to hospital due to exposure to carbon monoxide. However none required admission. A firefighter was admitted to hospital due to a cut that subsequently became infected and another firefighter was injured activating a water spray in the mine. A number of firefighters required first aid at the mine throughout the fire.
During the Hazelwood mine fire, exposure to elevated levels of carbon monoxide was a key risk for firefighters. Carbon monoxide is produced during the incomplete combustion of coal and can cause symptoms such as headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Carbon monoxide cannot be detected without appropriate equipment.
To counter this risk, fire services developed and implemented a number of procedures throughout the fire. The Draft Carbon Monoxide Regional Operating Procedure (developed in 2006) was initially utilised, with additional measures incorporated to form the Health Management and Decontamination Plan.
GDF Suez had a carbon monoxide procedure in place to manage the risk of exposure to carbon monoxide during a mine fire. It also utilised the fire services’ carbon monoxide procedures and subsequently the Health Management and Decontamination Plan.
The Board of Inquiry received submissions from the United Firefighters Union and Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, which raised a number of concerns about the health risks faced by firefighters during the mine fire. Both groups submitted that the Country Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and GDF Suez failed to recognise the potential health risks to those involved in the fire operations, particularly from exposure to carbon monoxide. The Board also heard from fire services members and GDF Suez about the firefighting conditions during the fire and responses to these concerns. The health impacts of exposure to carbon monoxide were explained by the expert witness engaged by the Board, Professor Donald Campbell, Professor of Medicine, Southern Clinical School, Monash University and Program Director, General Medicine Program, Monash Health.
The Board considers that better mechanisms should have been in place to protect firefighters from the risks of exposure to carbon monoxide. The Board considers that there was a delay in implementing safety procedures to protect the firefighters from the risk of exposure to carbon monoxide. The development of the Health Management and Decontamination Plan assisted in managing the risk to firefighters. However, it did not give adequate regard to firefighters who may have been particularly vulnerable to adverse health effects from exposure to carbon monoxide. The fact that the Draft Carbon Monoxide Regional Operating Procedure had not been finalised since 2006 is of concern.