Inquiry ‘broad enough’

The State Government insists the terms of reference for the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry are broad enough to address concerns about firefighter health and safety.

It follows earlier criticism by an occupational hygienist hired by the MFB to review the health monitoring process of firefighters in the mine.

A spokesman for Premier Denis Napthine said the terms of reference were “deliberately broad” to encompass all aspects of the emergency response.

He said section four of the terms of reference – which centres around the adequacy and effectiveness of the response, including informing affected communities of the known effects and risks and the subsequent response – would cover concerns about emergency service worker health.

In a leaked letter dated 13 February, the occupational hygienist slammed fire authorities’ subscription to guidelines which allowed firefighters to enter the mine if the concentration of carbon monoxide in their blood was five per cent or less. He described the guideline as having “no clear rationale or justification”.

“Although loosely based on the Safe Work Australia standard, setting of this limit is inconsistent with the goal of maintaining a COHb [carboxy-haemoglobin] level well below five per cent to minimise the risk symptoms of CO poisoning,” the letter stated.

He cited Safe Work Australia documentation which states a level of 2.5 per cent to three per cent is “the lowest level at which clearly adverse health effects have been well-documented”.

In the letter he detailed the resolutions of a meeting to discuss the “untenable” risk of CO exposure, including an agreement that entry to the mine would require compulsory use of a self-contained breathing apparatus.

According to the United Firefighters Union, this did not occur, and firefighters were instead issued with P2 dust masks. The Opposition this week called for the terms of reference to be expanded to include the adequacy and effectiveness of measures taken by fire services to protect their personnel.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the five per cent carbon monoxide blood concentration was part of Safe Work standards.

Mr Lapsley said after receiving the letter on 13 February, authorities had improved health monitoring procedures by 15 February. He said this included a two hours work – two hours rest policy, the deployment of more CO detectors with crews and individuals in the mine which recorded every 15 minutes and broadening testing capability including blood tests.

Mr Lapsley said self-contained breathing apparatuses only provided 30 to 45 minutes of air and weighed 20 kilograms.

He said following a re-assessment of the mine area, it was seen to be “excessive” to wear the gear perpetually as there was no CO present all the time.

Mr Lapsley said the trigger point for either leaving the area or wearing the apparatus was a CO spike reading of 50 parts per million. In a follow-up review of medical monitoring on 9 March, the same occupational hygienist found the program was “robust and professionally conducted”.

“Many of the issues with the medical monitoring process which were experienced during the initial phases of the incident, when the staging area was located at the mine training centre, have been rectified,” he stated.