“It’s open slather”: Mechanic awarded $1.4 million after court finds business had no safe system for work

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A Canberra engine repair business has been ordered by the court to pay an injured mechanic $1,399,341 in damages, because it didn’t provide a safe system of work for lifting heavy items.

Stephen Roberts suffered an injury to his back while he was employed as a mechanic by DRB Equipment Repairs.

He was helping two men to manually lift a 105-kilogram pressure cleaner into the side door of a delivery van outside the DRB workshop when the load became snagged on a step inside the vehicle, causing it to roll, on its wheels, backwards towards him.

Roberts took the weight of the load which triggered pain in the lower left hand side of his back and a ‘burning sensation’. He went home and was referred for physiotherapy.

After making a workers’ compensation claim Roberts returned to work, but despite multiple treatments over the next two years, this failed to eliminate his back pain.

Following a significant workplace injury to his toe, in 2010, his employment was terminated and Roberts sued DRB for damages for his chronic low-back pain, which, he argued, precludes him from working.

In a judgment handed down in December last year the ACT Supreme Court awarded Roberts $1,399,341, which included amounts for general damages, plus compensation for past and future economic loss.

Justice Mossop found Roberts is required to take significant amounts of medication in order to manage his pain, and that he is suffering from chronic depression secondary to his pain.

He found DRB failed to have any documented or enforced system for dealing with lifting heavy items, that it left employees to deal with the hazards associated with this task in the way they saw fit, and that these conditions put Roberts in “the position … where manual handling was an attractive option even though it exposed him to the risks that eventuated”.

Justice Mossop explained that while there were ramps and a forklift at the workshop that could be used for getting heavy wheeled items in and out of vehicles, there was no evidence of any system, instructions or directions to ensure they were used by employees to lift heavy items.

Darren Bookham, owner of DRB, told SmartCompany the award had a significant impact on his business.

“I’ve gone from paying $4000 a year workers comp to $40,000 a year,” he says.

“In the ACT there is no cap on workers compensation, so it is just open slather in what can be awarded.” 

Bookham questioned how such a large award could be made when there were forklifts and ramps available to assist in lifting which could have been used.

“Sometimes I think it’s better not to employ anyone, you try to grow your business and to comply with every regulation that is there,” he says. 

Andrew Douglas, employment law specialist at M&K Lawyers, says the key issue in this case was the failure by DRB to provide a safe system of work.

“Isn’t it crazy that a person’s life can be destroyed, millions of dollars paid over by insurers all because people did not do a five minute safety system?” he says.    

Douglas says employers have obligations to provide a safe place of work and safe system of work, the primary responsibility that sits on the owner is to understand what sort of work is undertaken in the business and the hazards in that workplace.

According to Douglas, employers need to ensure they have a safe system in place.

A safe system involves a plan that identifies the hazard and risk, processes to deal with this hazard and risk, training of people to make them competent, supervision it to make sure it is occurring, a system of monitoring that provides information and a reporting system. 

“This shows the importance of preventing injury, as this is what happens if you don’t, and the critical nature of bringing people back to work and re-engaging them for their own mental health,” Douglas says. 

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Cara Waters is the former editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Cara was a senior reporter at the Financial Times website FT Adviser in London and she also worked for The Sunday Times in London.

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