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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2023


Fire Brigades Union DECON Campaign

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

I ask members and those in the public gallery who are leaving the chamber to do so as quickly and quietly as possible.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-06671, in the name of Maggie Chapman, on the Fire Brigades Union DECON campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members wishing to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Scotland for leading the DECON Campaign, whose aim is to protect the health and save the lives of firefighters by reducing exposure to harmful contaminants that cause cancer and disease; recognises what it sees as the fundamental role that research and data play in fully understanding the risks that firefighters face in their day-to-day working lives; understands that in 2022 the World Health Organization declared occupational exposure experienced by firefighters as carcinogenic, a preventable cause of human cancer; further understands that, in the UK, the FBU, alongside Professor Anna Stec from the University of Central Lancashire, has led research into the links between cancer and firefighting, as well as best practices that can help mitigate potential risks from fire contaminants, including commissioning and working with independent researchers to develop a Firefighters Cancer and Disease Registry; applauds the FBU and its partners for producing best practice guidance and training for firefighters alongside the DECON campaign; understands that DECON is the largest study of its kind in the UK; expresses its solidarity with all involved in the campaign, and wishes them every success in improving the lives of firefighters in the North East Scotland region, more widely across Scotland and throughout the UK.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I reiterate my plea to those leaving the public gallery to do so as quietly as possible.

I invite Maggie Chapman to open the debate. You have around seven minutes, Ms Chapman.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

It is a great privilege and honour to lead this debate, which is of vital importance to every region and constituency in Scotland. I thank all members who have supported my motion, and I welcome and thank our guests in the public gallery: Professor Anna Stec from the University of Central Lancashire, and John McKenzie and his colleagues from the Fire Brigades Union.

For many of us here today, there is no more terrifying threat than fire and there are no greater heroes than firefighters. Each of us can perhaps take a moment to rediscover our memories, stories and histories—all the ways in which we and our families and communities owe so very much to those who keep us safe from the horrors of uncontrolled flames, and of entrapment, suffocation and smoke.

In a world of climate change, drought and wildfire, and of corporate corner-cutting and official indifference, we need firefighters more than ever before. The burning tower of Grenfell stands as a terrible testament to the priorities of the powerful. We remember with grief the people who lost their lives there and renew our solidarity with the hundreds who were injured and bereaved.

We know now of another appalling price that was paid for that greed and contempt, with the news that many firefighters who battled that blaze have now been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Grenfell represents a particular horror, but those impacts on the health of firefighters are neither unique nor unusual. Here, in Scotland, Anne’s story is typical of the experience of firefighters and their families. Anne—a nurse—writes:

“My husband George was due to retire from the fire service in June 2017 and we had planned our retirement; intending to travel and enjoy a new freedom. In July 2017 we were to be enjoying an extended holiday on a sunny beach, instead we were sitting in the waiting area of our local cancer hospital after he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer, six weeks before he retired. George sadly died in 2020 from cancer and as many fire fighters will tell you, they all know a colleague with a cancer diagnosis or one who has sadly died of cancer and often at a young age with a young family.”

A ground-breaking study, which was led by Professor Anna Stec, has been published in the scientific journal Occupational Medicine this month. It is entitled “Scottish Firefighters Occupational Cancer and Disease Mortality Rates: 2000-2020” and reveals the extent, depth and scope of what we can, with accuracy, call a scandal, for it has gone unaddressed in the United Kingdom by research, law and practice.

The study indicates that Scottish firefighters have higher mortality rates from cancer at younger ages than their counterparts in the general population. Rare cancers are often diagnosed in firefighters only when they have already reached a terminal stage, and prostate cancer, leukaemia and cancer of the oesophagus, among others, have mortality rates in firefighters that are several times that of the general population. Other diseases, too, are far more likely to kill firefighters than the rest of us, with mortality rates from strokes more than double and from heart attacks multiplied by five.

Those findings are supported by a four-part study of firefighters’ health risks across the UK and by an assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer—part of the World Health Organization—which concluded that firefighting as an occupation is carcinogenic. Both of those studies were published last year and align with evidence from many other countries.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Maggie Chapman on securing the debate.

Following the WHO’s decision on the carcinogenic aspect of firefighting, does she agree that we perhaps now need to look to its being registered as both an industrial accident and a disease, so that support can be given to firefighters across the UK?

Maggie Chapman

I will come to some of the requests of the FBU’s campaign, but that is an interesting avenue to explore and I am happy to talk to the member about it after the debate.

Firefighters in the UK have waited far too long for protections that are standard practice elsewhere. Many have died waiting, as we know. In Scotland, we now have the opportunity to change that and to bring justice, care, humanity and respect to the firefighters to whom we owe so very much. That is why I am calling on the Scottish Government to make four vital commitments today.

The first, very simply, is for regular annual health screening for firefighters, both during their period of service and afterwards, into retirement. We know the importance of preventative health and the crucial difference that is made by early diagnosis. Let us give our firefighters and the medics who care for them the best possible chance of avoiding the worst.

The second commitment that I and the Fire Brigades Union seek is for occupational information to be included in health and similar records, including death certificates. Again and again, in the chamber and our committee rooms, we reiterate the vital importance of data and accurate information to inform policy and practice. When patients are or have been firefighters, that fact matters. It needs to be known and recorded.

The third reform that firefighters need is the establishment of a just and fair compensation scheme, which might relate to Martin Whitfield’s point. Many jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada, Poland and nearly all US states, have presumptive legislation for firefighters—laws that recognise their enhanced risk and the realities of long-term and repeated exposure. We can learn from best practice around the world to develop a Scottish model, filling the shameful gap in our justice and protection.

Finally, I am asking for a budget to support the practical work that needs to be done on the ground in fire stations across Scotland. We must ensure, as a matter of urgency, that stations have the resources, facilities, training and systems to minimise contamination and maximise health. It is a substantial but achievable task, and the FBU is ready and willing to work with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Scottish Government and MSPs to make it happen in every constituency.

Three years ago, in Dundee, a huge fire broke out in an industrial estate unit, the roof of which contained asbestos cement. It is too early to know whether those burning fibres in the air have affected the health of the brave local firefighters who put out the blaze. What we know is that firefighters across Scotland, day in and day out, bear the risks of significant and life-threatening disease. For far too long, those risks to firefighters in the UK have been much higher than they need to be.

Our firefighters put their lives on the line every day for us, the safety of our homes and the wellbeing of our pets and communities. They are the ones we trust to come into our homes. They are the public servants who command the highest levels of public support and respect. It is time for us, in Scotland, to take a lead, to recognise and respect our heroes and to support and enable the FBU’s vital campaign. I hope that the minister will agree to meet the FBU and me to discuss how best to do that. It is definitely time to act.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Understandably, there is a lot of interest in participating in the debate among colleagues. We started late, and afternoon business will resume at 2 pm, so I must ask colleagues to stick to their speaking time allocation.


Joe FitzPatrick (Dundee City West) (SNP)

I thank Maggie Chapman for securing this important debate. I place on the record my gratitude to all fire and rescue officers and emergency service workers, who keep us all safe every day—I am sure that I will be joined by colleagues from across the chamber in that. However, that collective gratitude will be worthless if we do not heed the warnings of Professor Anna Stec, whose ground-breaking research has informed the Fire Brigade Union’s DECON campaign.

As we have heard from Maggie Chapman, UK firefighters are four times more likely than other people to get cancer during their working life—it is important to repeat that shocking statistic.

In short, the DECON campaign aims to protect firefighters and their families from carcinogenic fire contaminants. Not only are our firefighters risking their lives to keep us safe; they are risking their health and the health of their family members. I am pleased that the Parliament is debating this matter. It is incumbent on us all to do everything within our power to protect the people who risk their lives to protect us.

I had the pleasure recently of visiting Blackness fire station in my constituency. Having discussed the DECON campaign directly with firefighters, I lodged a written question to the minister on the matter. I was very pleased to be informed by the minister that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is engaging with the research. Representatives of the SFRS met Professor Stec in November last year to hear about the important research that she is doing and to offer the SFRS’s co-operation in that work. I was further informed that the SFRS has a management of contaminants group, which has already made significant changes in procedures, equipment and facilities in order to reduce firefighters’ contact with equipment that could contain contaminants that are harmful to health. I understand that that important work will continue, and it is really important that the Parliament uses its power to ensure that it does.

I understand that one difficulty that is encountered by officers is having suitable facilities to decontaminate their protective equipment after use, which means that they often reuse the same equipment for a second emergency call-out. One of the key recommendations in Professor Stec’s report is for all fire and rescue services to establish and strictly maintain designated zones within fire stations as a priority for preventing cross-contamination. That will not always be straightforward, so I call on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to work with the FBU at station level to establish designated zones as quickly as possible.

The report sets out some of the ways in which firefighters may be exposed to toxic contaminants, which include inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion. The report also highlights some of the health conditions, in addition to cancer, that are risked through exposure, such as coronary heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver, among many others. I have a quote on that, but I am mindful of the Presiding Officer’s point about timing. I encourage members to look at the report on the DECON work.

I conclude by again thanking Maggie Chapman for securing this important debate, which allows members across the chamber to highlight the risks that are experienced by firefighters every day. I also thank the Fire Brigades Union and Professor Anna Stec and her team at the University of Central Lancashire. Finally, I thank, once more, all our fire and rescue officers for keeping us all safe. I hope that the Scottish Government can work with the SFRS and the FBU to ensure that all the key recommendations of the report are implemented as soon as possible.

Thank you very much, Mr FitzPatrick, not least for your exemplary time keeping, which sets a good example.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

I begin by informing members that I have a commitment to attend an event at Glasgow airport this afternoon, which means that I am unable to stay for the duration of Maggie Chapman’s important debate. I mean her no disrespect, and I am grateful to the Presiding Officer for agreeing to my request to leave after the opening speeches.

The issues that the debate raises are extremely serious. The University of Central Lancashire’s study, which was commissioned by the FBU and is referred to in Maggie Chapman’s motion, is shocking. Professor Stec and her team found deeply concerning cancer rates among firefighters. That follows last year’s WHO designation of firefighting as a carcinogenic occupation.

I know that other members will talk in detail about those findings. I will turn to the two most significant recent publications from or about the SFRS. The first is the Scottish Government’s “Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022”, which was published 10 months ago. It contains seven strategic priorities, number 6 of which is the category of “People”. There are references to fair work and pay, equal opportunities, new skills and being representative of society. I have no doubt that that is all important stuff, yet, in 37 pages, there are just two paragraphs about health, wellbeing and safety, and there is not a single mention of contaminants.

The other report is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s “Annual Performance Review: 2021-2022”, which was published four months ago. It lists 10 priorities, number 10 of which is “People”. That section includes almost five pages on diversity, inclusion and other matters. There is a page about physical wellbeing, although it is mostly in the context of physical fitness. Again, that is all very important, but the entire 48-page report contains just two sentences on contaminants. It says:

“we continued to strengthen our approach to health and medical surveillance and considering a range of options to ensure we deliver health assessments in accordance with our statutory requirements.”

That does not tell us much. I do not know what the firefighters here and elsewhere would make of it. In two official reports, which comprise 85 glossy and expensive pages, there is only the most fleeting mention of contaminants, which are likely to be the cause of high cancer rates and premature deaths.

I do not doubt for a moment the commitment of senior officers to their people. Few organisations have such an admirable esprit de corps, which I saw at first hand on a recent visit to Paisley fire station, but I am left questioning why the corporate output shies away from such an important issue.

The bottom line is money, specifically the financial choices that are made by the Government and, more specifically, the choices that are made by Scottish National Party ministers in Edinburgh about how money is spent. Many fire stations are old, lack basic facilities and are in a state of serious disrepair. It is beyond question that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has been starved of cash year after year. Members need not take my word for that. Interim chief officer Ross Haggart confirmed to the Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee that he needs £500 million—half a billion pounds—just to bring infrastructure up to a decent standard.

I commend Maggie Chapman’s motion and back her specific calls for action on this very important subject.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I sincerely thank Maggie Chapman for her superb speech. I was delighted to host a presentation about the report with her late last year.

According to Action on Asbestos, firefighters are two and a half times more likely than other people are to develop mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. It is an invariably fatal cancer that results from exposure to asbestos fibres. It causes horrific suffering and loss, not only for those affected but for family and friends who witness someone close to them suffer and die.

As we have heard, asbestos-related illnesses are not the only risk that firefighters face as a result of their occupation. Firefighters are four times more likely to get cancer than the average working person and might get it up to 15 years earlier. That has been directly linked to contact with toxic contaminants that are released during fires. It is unacceptable for that to go unaddressed any longer.

As other speakers have said, the World Health Organization declared occupational exposure experienced by firefighters to be carcinogenic and a preventable cause of human cancer, but there is, as yet, no policy of regular checks or screening for cancer throughout their careers. That is totally unacceptable.

The issue is not confined to Scotland. We heard recently that a dozen firefighters who tackled the blaze at Grenfell tower in June 2017 have since been diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is no doubt that firefighters are exposed to life-threatening contaminants as a result of their occupation.

A number of studies have focused on the risks and dangers associated with contaminated personal protective equipment and workplaces and on the bringing of contaminants back to fire stations on clothing, PPE and vehicles. Those studies have shown that there is a high, but preventable, risk of exposure to carcinogenic and toxic substances in fire stations.

As we heard in the presentation, firefighters working in rural Scotland have expressed the fear that they are at increased risk of cancer because so many of our rural fire stations are without running water. Their inability to shower quickly after returning from fires means that they cannot properly clean cancer-causing chemicals that are released during fires from their clothes and skin. I am sure that the minister will address that concern. A report last year stated that 11 Scottish fire stations in remote countryside areas had inadequate facilities, which is a matter that the FBU has repeatedly raised.

Professor Stec’s study and the research that was commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union absolutely confirm what firefighters and their representatives in Scotland have been saying for years: unfortunately, firefighting causes cancer.

I fully support all of Maggie Chapman’s asks. Worryingly, it seems that the industrial injuries disablement and benefit advisory group, which was set up by the Government in 2016, has not met for some time. It is important that we get that up and running.

Having previously been involved in the fight against asbestos-related cancers in other industries, I know that it is important to look for and establish causal links. When there is an accepted causal link—sadly, that is the case for some workers—workers need to challenge their employers and fight for compensation for being put in those conditions. We should make it easy for firefighters to be able to do that, as we have done for other professions, such as shipyard workers, under the mesothelioma compensation scheme. It is a difficult issue to raise, but it is one that we must address.

I fully support the Fire Brigades Union’s asks on the matter and look forward to hearing the minister’s response.


Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I thank Maggie Chapman for hosting this important debate and Unity Consulting, which is led by Neil Findlay, for its contributory work in bringing the FBU’s campaign to the Scottish Parliament’s attention.

Globally, 15 million firefighters work to protect people and the environments in which we live and work by putting themselves on the line by entering dangerous situations to take control of fires and save lives. It is an inherently dangerous job, so firefighters deserve our praise and respect for the risks that they have to take. However, we are here to do more than that: we are here to consider what we can do to protect the health of firefighters in return.

The Fire Brigades Union’s DECON campaign outlines practical steps that can be taken to promote the health of firefighters. It is based on new findings that reveal the higher cancer risks that firefighters face just by doing their jobs. The campaign is based on the comprehensive work of Professor Anna Stec from the centre for fire and hazards sciences at the University of Central Lancashire—UCLan for short.

The FBU has been working with UCLan for three years to understand the link between fire exposure and cancer. Together, they have now evidenced that firefighters are four times more likely to get cancer than the average working person. That drives home how important it is that parliamentarians, the Government, unions, fire stations and firefighters gain the best possible understanding of what health risks firefighters are being exposed to and what preventative actions can be taken. The FBU’s general secretary made a strong statement to that effect, saying that the report on the research

“delivers clear and authoritative guidance to fire and rescue services across the UK about the measures they can take to minimise firefighters’ exposure to contaminants.”

Right now, there is a step change in the firefighting profession to re-evaluate how health is best protected. Vital global research has facilitated that shift. Last year, the World Health Organization looked for the second time at cancer rates among firefighters. Due to the work of 30 global studies that had monitored firefighters’ health, it was finally able to verify that they are more likely to get cancer.

However, as UCLan has shown, that has not yet translated into awareness on the ground, as 84 per cent of firefighters frequently or sometimes do not know how to use respiratory protective equipment well enough, despite inhalation and ingestion being main routes for cancer to develop. More needs to be done to incorporate the report’s suggestions so that that statistic is reversed. Facilities must also be in place on site for cleaning and decontamination.

I highlight some parallel work in the welding sector to address the inhalation and ingestion of carcinogenic contaminants. John Brown, who is based at BAE Systems on the Clyde, and the GMB have launched the breathe easy campaign to address the impact of heavy metal welding fumes on GMB members and their families. There is potential for collaboration across sectors with similar cancer risks on how we encourage preventative measures to be adopted, so that more workers follow protective procedures and so that employers and the Government make sufficient provision for such measures in the first place.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Maggie Chapman on securing the debate and thank the Fire Brigades Union for all the work that it is doing on the issue.

The exposure of firefighters to toxins during their employment is creating a health crisis. There are currently 357 fire stations in Scotland and the FBU estimates that more than 100 lack sufficient showering or toilet facilities.

That figure was confirmed by Interim Chief Officer Ross Haggart when I questioned him at the Criminal Justice Committee recently. He also confirmed that around one in four fire stations in this country lacks basic bathroom facilities and that some stations do not have a running water supply. In total, 220 stations are in poor or bad condition, 150 do not have showering facilities, 100 lack drying facilities and 11 have no water supply at all. The FBU also claims that a number of stations are held together by internal scaffolding.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has also cancelled a multimillion-pound contract for a new command and control system due to financial pressures. Mr Haggart estimated that £138 million is needed just to address those essential health and safety issues that have been highlighted. He also said that there was a backlog of £630 million in the fire service’s capital budget.

Those issues are nothing to do with this year’s budgetary issues or with whatever settlement might be coming from Westminster. The issues are a result of a failure to give the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service the resources that it needs to invest in its capital projects over many years. It is shameful that we are in this position today. The resource budget for the fire service has been cut by £40 million in real terms since 2012-13, and it is set to suffer further real-terms cuts over the next four years.

It is clear that there is a rich seam of research that shows that firefighting, as an occupation, is carcinogenic. It is also clear that the employer has a legal responsibility and that, if cases were taken to court, it would be liable.

The debate raises some very practical issues. From 2012-13 to last year, almost 1,100 firefighter jobs were cut across all uniformed posts in Scotland, which is almost 15 per cent of the total workforce. That is partially due to a lack of investment, but there is also a growing perception that firefighting is not a safe profession and that the pay levels are not attractive. The FBU is currently balloting its members with regard to pay.

The message that comes out of today’s debate is that the Scottish Government needs to make it a top priority to address the risks that are being highlighted. It has a legal responsibility to act, just as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has a responsibility to put in place a safe system of work for the people whom it employs. Frankly, this situation is not good enough. Firefighters deserve better.

I call Jamie Greene, to be followed by Richard Leonard.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I am not sure how I am going to do this ahead of Richard Leonard, as I know that he will give a stomping speech on behalf of Scotland’s firefighters, but I will do my best.

I thank Maggie Chapman for raising the issue in the chamber. It is an important debate on an issue that I have raised in the chamber and in the Criminal Justice Committee on a number of occasions.

We should not be debating this issue as a members’ business debate from an Opposition or back-bench member. It should come from the Government benches, because what has happened to Scotland’s firefighters over the past 16 years is shameful, and it is a mark of shame on the Government. I mean that as no disrespect to the minister on the front bench, because she is new to the role and the Parliament. However, this debate has been a long time in coming, and it is absolutely right that we get it on the record today.

The briefing from the FBU made the situation starkly clear. I cannot add much to the statistics that we have been given in some of the excellent speeches that I have already heard in today’s debate. However, the FBU has made some clear asks, which Ms Chapman reiterated at the beginning of the debate. First, legislation is needed so that firefighters have a clear route to compensation. I have worked on compensation legislation in the Parliament and I know that it is difficult and complicated, but it is not impossible. I want the Government to reflect on that.

Secondly, there should be annual health monitoring for all current firefighters and those who have retired. That is key, because the average age of a firefighter in Scotland is 41, which falls well below the threshold for many of the standard checks for older people, but we know that firefighters need those checks for all the reasons that we have heard today.

The final and most important issue that I want to focus on in my brief comments is investment in facilities, equipment and what I call the absolute basics. I have raised the issue in the chamber before. None of us would come and sit in the Parliament if the roof was dripping and falling down. None of us would sit in our offices if we could not go to the toilet. None of us would cycle to work if there was not a shower facility at the end of every corridor in the members’ block. We would not put up with such conditions, so why do we expect firefighters to do so? It is shocking and shameful.

Firefighters put their lives on the line day in, day out, every hour of every day, and recent high-profile fires across Scotland have reminded us of the tragedy that can occur when fire breaks out. Firefighters are always there for us when we need them, so why are we not always there for them?

I will mention briefly that, when firefighters with the FBU held a protest outside the Parliament in October last year, I went out to see them. I got some bemused looks from some trade union officials but, nonetheless, I was pleased to be there, and I think that they were grateful for my presence. Minister, the reason that I went out was to speak to the firefighters themselves. It is all very well hypothesising over academic studies, but let us go and talk to people one to one. They told me what it is like on the ground. They are proud of their work and their success rate, and they do it in the most difficult of circumstances.

Why do we have fire stations without running water or basic shower facilities? Decontamination needs to happen quickly—within hours or even minutes of getting back to the fire station. If you cannot have a shower or change your clothes, of course you will be at higher risk of cancerous outcomes later in life; we know that, because the health experts and academics tell us that. If we know all that, why can a firefighter not do the most basic thing of having a shower when they get back to the station? We can all do that when we finish work, so why can they not? The Government needs to think about that.

As Katy Clark mentioned, it is about capital budget, not resource budget. It is not a pay discussion; it is about investment in facilities. There is a £0.5 billion backlog, and I know that the minister does not have £0.5 billion up her sleeve to fix that, but this chronic underinvestment has been happening for 16 years. The minister must reflect on that, and the Government must not only apologise but realise what needs to be done to make a difference. I do not expect it to pull rabbits out of hats to find that kind of money, but it has to come up with a plan for how it will invest in basic facilities so that we reduce those risks.

I could talk about this issue all day, because it is important, but I will close with this: every one of us in the chamber owes it to Scotland’s firefighters to protect them as much as possible, but that is simply not happening. We are playing catch-up with our emergency services. The Government must and should do better.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing the motion to Parliament, and I thank the Fire Brigades Union for supporting the critical, significant and groundbreaking research that has been carried out by Anna Stec and her team at the University of Central Lancashire.

That there is a direct relationship between working-class occupations and life expectancy, health and wellbeing has long been recognised. Go and look at the old trade union banners:

“Shorter hours and longer life”,


“Out of darkness into light”,


“The Hope of Labour is the Welfare of All”.

They are a reminder that the trade union movement from its very inception has always organised and campaigned for its members, not just to mitigate the effects of the system but to fundamentally change the system. So, what comes in the report should not surprise us, but it should nonetheless shock us all, and it should shame the Government into action.

The findings are stark: Scottish firefighters compared with the general population are almost twice as likely to die from urinary cancers; two and a half times more likely to die from cancer of the oesophagus; more than three times as likely to die from acute myeloid leukaemia; and nearly four times more likely to die from cancer of the prostate.

So, let us be clear that the high prevalence of cancer and the high mortality rate are caused by occupational exposure, which is why it strikes not only the older but the younger firefighter. Only last week, the Daily Mirror revealed that, just five years on from the Grenfell tower fire, 12 of the heroic firefighters who saved so many lives there are now suffering from rare terminal cancers. Some of them are only in their 40s.

Yet, as recently as March 2021, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council ruled against recognising cancer as a prescribed disease for firefighters, citing “insufficient evidence”. Well, we now have irrefutable evidence, now we have this new data, so not to right this wrong would not only be an abdication of duty; it would be a negation of the truth and it would be justice denied.

The action that we need from the SNP-Green Government is this. First, we need resources for our Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for preventative screening and monitoring of firefighters, irrespective of their age. Secondly, we need the routine monitoring of firefighters who are exposed to toxic fire effluents after attending incidents. Thirdly, we need properly resourced and active joint health and safety committees, but we also need facility time for training on the Fire Brigades Union DECON programme as part of that preventative health approach.

Fourthly, now that we have the devolution of the industrial injuries disablement benefit—IIDB—we should have our own active industrial injuries advisory council for Scotland. That is precisely what my old friend and comrade Alex Bennett—a miner, trade unionist and tireless fighter for his class, not least at IIDB appeals tribunals, who sadly passed away last week—long campaigned for. That is how we should honour his memory. It is also precisely what Mark Griffin is calling for in his proposed members’ bill.

This FBU campaign is about saving the lives of those who save the lives of others. We keep our faith in them. It is now our turn to repay their faith in us. Justice for our firefighters. Victory to the FBU.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing the debate to the chamber. I also welcome everyone who has spoken in the debate and our guests in the public gallery.

Many of us will have friends, family members or colleagues who have been diagnosed with cancer, and we will have witnessed the intolerable toll that that takes on them and their families.

For those who dedicate their lives to protect us from the risk that fire presents to life and property, the likelihood of suffering from cancer is, as we have heard, four times higher than it is for other people. That is totally unacceptable. Despite that knowledge, firefighters still bravely face the flames and take on a job that few of us have experience of. I cannot imagine what that feels like and how brave someone must be as they continue to do the job that they love.

As with so many things relating to cancer and other associated health outcomes, we do not fully understand the details of why that level of increased exposure is so prevalent in this line of work. However, through the FBU’s brilliant report and accompanying campaign, we now know so much more. Even better, we have detailed information about the steps that we must take to protect those workers. That truly groundbreaking research lays the foundation for an improvement in the fire service, the likes of which we have not seen for many years. It is important that we take the report seriously.

The FBU’s DECON campaign is a welcome example of how first-class research can be utilised to increase awareness, to decrease harm and to achieve progress in the workplace. I believe that we should be using that model across workplaces, industries and services. I whole-heartedly applaud the FBU and the university team for their achievement and for taking forward that work.

The report not only provides evidence of the heightened risk for firefighters as a result of what they face but provides practical steps that we can get behind, which other speakers have mentioned. We can successfully minimise firefighters’ exposure.

For the sake of time, I will comment in particular on the fact that, although some of the steps that can be taken are actually very simple, as we have heard, due to the decrease in the resources that go into firefighters’ workplaces, we cannot carry out some of those simple steps at this time, which is quite shocking. I think that everyone in the chamber will agree that that must change. The research is groundbreaking, and we must take those simple steps immediately.

By taking steps such as ensuring that firefighters wear respiratory equipment at all times, prevent cross-contamination of personal protective equipment, change clothes and shower within an hour, and through having regular health screening for firefighters—and, as another member mentioned, retired firefighters—we can hugely change the outcomes, and it is essential that we do so.

I will conclude by remarking on the importance of the study for firefighters and for the way in which we look at workplaces. It is informative, and I really enjoyed reading it and thinking about how it could change the outcomes for many of our workers across industry and services and improve outcomes for those valuable professions.

I thank everyone who spoke in the debate, and I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing this crucial issue to the chamber.


The Minister for Community Safety (Elena Whitham)

I, too, thank Maggie Chapman for raising this important issue and for bringing it to the attention of the wider Parliament today.

I acknowledge the significant work of the Fire Brigades Union in commissioning this important research with the University of Central Lancashire and producing the report that is being discussed today, which I have read closely. I welcome representatives from the Fire Brigades Union and Professor Anna Stec to the gallery today.

The safety, health and wellbeing of all SFRS staff, who work so hard to protect communities in some of the most challenging environments, are of the utmost importance and are a key priority to me. Although the FBU’s DECON campaign, the research and any of its subsequent findings are matters for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, as the employer of firefighters in Scotland, it is an issue that I, as the minister with portfolio responsibility, intend to pursue rigorously, given its vital significance.

Through regular meetings with the SFRS board chair and chief officer, I am fully aware of the research. I know that the SFRS has engaged with the work for a number of years and that it met Professor Anna Stec in November 2022 to hear directly about the important research that she was doing and to offer the SFRS continued co-operation on that work.

The SFRS established its management of contaminants working group in 2018, to look, as we have heard, at potential risks and how to support firefighter safety. The group includes representation from the FBU, has links to external specialists and is supported at the highest levels of SFRS staffing. The purpose of the working group is to look at technical, procedural and cultural solutions to mitigate the risks of personnel and any others who might be affected by the actions of SFRS personnel being exposed to contaminants.

Katy Clark

I am very aware that the minister is quite new to her role and that she has been presented with a massive challenge, but does she accept that the research that is coming out makes it clear that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has significant legal liabilities and that there will be a need for significant capital expenditure, which puts it into a priority category for attention? Is that something that the minister will try to address?

Minister, I will give you the time back.

Elena Whitham

I assure Katy Clark that this is something that I intend to pursue rigorously for the reasons that she outlined.

Not that long ago, a soot-stained tunic was inextricably linked to the courage and the dedication of our firefighters. Now, we absolutely know that that soot, along with the aerosol vapours, signifies harmful contaminants. The SFRS has already made significant practical changes in procedures, equipment and facilities to reduce firefighter contact with equipment that could contain contaminants that are harmful to health. That important work will continue.

Many years ago—probably about 15 years ago—I was on call in a communal refuge in Ayrshire when we had a fire. I will forever be indebted to the firefighters who came out that day and to their dedication in ensuring that all the women and children were safe. For two years after that, I noticed the soot working its way out of every single nook and cranny in the refuge, so I know that soot is a significant contaminant.

We know about some of the practical changes that have been introduced, including working practices to ensure that firefighting equipment is properly cleaned and stored, in order to reduce contamination. Operational personnel, who might have been exposed to contaminants, are encouraged to shower as quickly as possible on their return to station grounds.

I know that, in some remote and rural areas, we have limited welfare facilities, and procedures have been developed to ensure that firefighters in those areas have appropriate decontamination solutions. That is not ideal, and I am very clear on my intention to engage directly on that urgent matter. A number of steps have also been taken to mitigate risk, including supplying all SFRS appliances and training centres with specialist decontamination wipes and, as Joe FitzPatrick mentioned, the trial of station zoning systems to limit potential spread.

Jamie Greene

I am listening with interest and I take at face value what the minister is saying about the urgency of the matter, but I have not heard any of the practical solutions that we need to hear. It is all very well offering decontamination wipes to people, but they need showers and facilities. If those do not exist, where will they come from?

Elena Whitham

As Jamie Greene pointed out, it is very difficult to answer those questions when I have not yet directly engaged with the FBU on that matter, although I will do so in a few weeks’ time. That will be an extra meeting because of the significant importance of the matter. I will come back on those issues, because I recognise their importance.

Opportunities are now being explored as to how the SFRS can work with Professor Stec on the potential positive impacts of policies, training, awareness and preventative measures, as the contaminants group continues to explore steps to minimise risk and improve firefighter safety as a result of the newly published report.

As part of the wider commitment to the welfare of SFRS staff, the service has developed a dedicated cancer awareness and prevention area in its internal i-hub. That is important, given that the increased rate of some types of cancers in some age groups is significantly higher than just 1.5 per cent or 5 per cent. The SFRS has also implemented enhanced cancer-focused screening questions and discussions—about, for example, skin checks and testicular and breast self-checks—during routine medical assessments, and it has introduced a data collection process to record, monitor and report on cancer diagnosis, which includes details of the type of cancer, age, gender, role, duty, system, work and home location. Given the recent research that highlighted a potential increase in the rate of heart attacks and strokes, I am keen to explore that further and will engage with the FBU on its asks surrounding annual health monitoring. I think that that is really important.

In February 2022, the service also signed the Dying to Work charter in order to show continued commitment to the welfare of its staff by protecting the rights at work of those people who face a serious or terminal illness. It is important that they can choose the path that is right for them and their families, without the additional worry of financial uncertainty.

We will continue to carefully consider any specific proposals from the FBU on the potential for any new legislation surrounding compensation and protection. Certain aspects of the health and safety legislation are reserved, so specific proposals would be required, so that they can be assessed against legislative competence. Should we get to that position, I am clear that I will work with the United Kingdom Government on that. My officials will also continue to investigate the current status of occupation recording, and we will look at options and procedures to see whether the proposed changes are feasible.

I know that capital resources are very tight, specifically this year, and we have ensured that the current level will be protected, but I will continue to discuss capital requirements with the SFRS, including looking at a degree of estate rationalisation to ensure that fire stations are located where they are most needed, in order to cover risks in our communities and to allow additional investment in remaining fire stations, while keeping that research at the forefront of my mind.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I am afraid that the minister is just about to conclude.

Elena Whitham

In closing, I again thank Maggie Chapman for the opportunity to discuss the issue and I thank members for their considered contributions from across the chamber.

For my retired firefighter uncle—who, because of his very sunny disposition, was forever known to his watch mates as Dark Cloud—and for all current and future firefighters, members can rest assured that I am keenly focused on the issue, and I look forward to working with the FBU on that at our meeting on 1 February.

13:49 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—