The case threatens to reignite tensions over years-long allegations of bullying within the CFA, placing the organisation under scrutiny as bushfire season approaches.
The career firefighter claims in his writ that superior officers at the CFA ordered him to participate in a competitive drill requiring the loser to wear a blonde wig and be the “bitch for the day”, as well as being yelled at in the face while being ordered to stand to attention.
The CFA told The Age it was committed to providing a safe organisation for employees and volunteers.
“CFA has been cooperating with WorkSafe in relation to this matter, however, as it is before the courts it would be inappropriate to comment further,” a spokeswoman said.
The CFA also said it would not comment on any allegation of bullying cultures within any of the worksites mentioned in the lawsuit.
Mr Cogger, 48, claims that when he suspected he was exposed to asbestos in July 2013, he was ridiculed for reporting the exposure and mocked over fears of absorbing the cancerous substance.
The bullying included … being ordered to strip naked and march whilst others took photographs and ridiculed him.
A quote from Mr Cogger’s writ alleging mistreatment
The Supreme Court writ says the bullying also included having articles such as a portable radio and map folder “thrown aggressively” at him.
The writ alleges the bullying continued after Mr Cogger took time off for depression and anxiety, and his request for transfer and details of his mental illness and claim for compensation was published to other members.
Mr Cogger alleges the incidents left him suffering from PTSD and rendered him incapable of working in his job, which paid $95,000 per year. He said multiple complaints were ignored or not handled correctly.
When contacted by The Age, Mr Cogger’s lawyer David Allen said his client did not want to be involved with the story and did not want to comment while the matter was before the court.
Mr Cogger says in the writ
he required hospitalisation, psychiatric treatment and medication to cope with the bullying.
The CFA was negligent, he says, by “causing or permitting or tolerating hazing, initiations and/or the humiliating and belittling of recruits and/or junior ranks”.
As of July this year, all career firefighters except CFA chiefs and deputies and are now employed by Fire Rescue Victoria.
The Victorian secretary of the United Firefighters Union, Peter Marshall, said they have worked to promote a safe working environment but, as of June, no longer had a relationship with the CFA because they didn’t directly employ full-time firefighters.
“The UFU does not tolerate bullying and harassment in the workplace. Any workplace should be a safe work environment for its employees,” Mr Marshall said.
The CFA has suffered repeated criticism in recent years for a culture of sexual harassment that multiple whistleblowers have claimed was endemic.
Between 2011 and 2019, the CFA shed 5000 volunteers and was almost 10,000 people short of its 2020 volunteers target, raising concerns about the state’s ability to combat fires during prolonged bushfire seasons.
In 2019 a group of Victoria’s volunteer firefighters, which included CFA members, called for their own ombudsman, equivalent to the fair work watchdog, to deal with bullying and harassment against volunteers.
The association representing thousands of the state’s unpaid firefighters wanted to rewrite CFA rules to ensure volunteers were judged by fellow volunteers, instead of career firefighting staff, when accused of wrongdoing.
David Estcourt is a court and general news reporter at The Age.