A recent court case in Queensland over a workplace injury could result in much higher priority given to reducing risk from unsafe manual handling work.
The compensation case in Brisbane’s Court of Appeals in August saw a company ordered to pay more than $231,000 to a worker who was injured doing order picking work at the company’s regional distribution centre in Brisbane.
The leading law firm representing the worker said the case had been closely watched by industry and set a precedent for actions by injured workers.
The case that began in 2013 was far-reaching. It covered use of materials handling aids, work pace, training and supervision, vulnerable workers and environment and human factors that employers must take into account in managing hazardous task. It related to an employer’s duty of care for their workers under work health and safety laws, the entitlements of injured workers under workers compensation law and the right to sue employers for negligence under common law.
The worker, a 54-year old migrant, was employed by the retailer in 2010, as a casual order selector doing up to 10-hour shifts. The distribution centre apparently used industry best practice for manual work at the workplace. It had employed an independent specialist to determine the level of productivity the employer should expect of its casual workforce.
The worker was required to pick boxes from shelving in a cool room and stack them up to 1.8 m high on a pallet jack. He then drove the pallet jack to the distribution era where he shrink-wrapped the pallets in preparation for despatch.
The workers were required to lift up to 2,160 cartons a shift from shelving that was as high as 1.5m. Most cartoons weighed 16 kg. This work made up 15 orders a day weighing more than 34,500 kg.
If there was not enough work on the day, those who were moving the least number of cartons during the day were sent home. The worker was one of 90 workers whose shifts were cut short during 2010.
Less than a year after doing this work, the worker injured his shoulder. His doctor found the cause was constant heavy lifting. When he was hired, the worker disclosed he had a shoulder problem. The employer argued that the new injury would have not have happened but for the pre-existing injury.
The judge discounted the employer’s argument based on medical opinion that the pre-existing shoulder condition was within the range of restricted capacity was common in the working population and within the range of normal strength at the worker’s age. The work had therefore aggravated the injury.
In the judgement, the judge quoted state of knowledge from outside of Queensland.
“The system of work involved frequent heavy lifting away from the body of weights in excess of the recommendations of the WorkSafe Victoria Guide to Manual Order Picking,” the judge said. He added that because of the worker’s concern about the work system and his job security it was likely he “took short cuts such as leaning across the pallet rather than walking around it, or carrying more than one item”.
The court heard that in the course of stacking cartons up to shoulder height and beyond the worker would frequently have to reach away from his body while holding cartons of various weights. In one day, he would do that 1600 times. In addition, workers in the section were required to do floor lifts, waist lifts and shoulder lifts up to 66 per cent of the time. The injured performed up to 2100 of these tasks in a shift.
At his first performance review, the worker was told he was picking at 85 per cent and this had to improve. The court heard that management believed it was very easy to achieve the required 100 per cent rate and many workers were picking at more than 100 per cent. The court also heard that is was common for workers to lift up to two cartons at a time.
The judge said workers had been trained in how to lift safely but this was not supervised on the shift. “The training and induction program was comprehensive, and an adequate response to the risk of musculoskeletal injury, but only in theory. The failure to implement the system was a breach of duty.”
The worker’s legal team said the “negligent work system” encouraged workers to work harder and faster. “It has confirmed a key point of law which clarified an employer’s duty to protect their employees, particularly when repetitive, high intensity work is involved.”