A former employee of the Australian Tax Office has lost her bid for more compensation, following an incident four years ago in which the ergonomic settings of her work station were altered without her knowledge.
While Sharon Gibbs was found to have injured her neck and shoulder as a result of changes to the height of her desk and chair, and received compensation from public service insurer Comcare between 2011 and 2013, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled last week Comcare was justified in refusing Gibbs any further compensation as her ongoing pain was the result of a pre-existing degenerative medical condition.
Gibbs, who had worked for the ATO since 1997, injured her neck and one of her shoulders in April 2011, which she attributed to changes to the height of her desk and chair. At the time, Gibbs was working as a debt collection officer.
Gibbs had put a sign on her desk saying “do not adjust or sit at this desk” and was initially told by her supervisors that no one else had used her work station. But the next day, her supervisors apologised and admitted casual works had used the work station and made changes to the desk and chair.
ComCare paid Gibbs compensation for aggravated neck pain and the sprain of her shoulder and upper right arm between 2011 and 2013. She previously received compensation for a work-related neck and shoulder injury in 2005
But Gibbs argued she was entitled to additional compensation, as she was still suffering from pain associated with the injury. Gibbs has not worked for the ATO since June 2012.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled in April 2014 Comcare was not liable to pay Gibbs additional compensation as medical evidence provided by two doctors indicated she had been diagnosed with a degenerative disease that would have caused her current pain.
The tribunal upheld the same ruling on February 12.
Andrew Douglas, workplace relations principal at M+K Lawyers, told SmartCompany it is common for workers’ compensation claims to be based on incidents that appear to aggravate or irritate previous injuries.
Douglas says in this case, it was clear the adjustment of Gibbs’ work station caused a soft-tissue injury but the underlying cause of Gibb’s ongoing pain was her existing medical condition.
He says the lesson for employers with workers who have chronic illnesses is to always work with the employee and insurer to monitor if the workplace is contributing to the illness.
Douglas says employers are required to provide a safe place to work for their employees and to make “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace to ensure the workplace remains safe.
“Making sure you provide a safe place to work is an hourly or daily thing,” he says.
“There’s no doubt in this case, if the employer had been more vigilant in managing the ergonomics for this woman, she would not have suffered the second injury and the employer would have avoided paying any compensation.”
SmartCompany contacted the ATO but the ATO was unable to comment due to privacy considerations.