Woolworths has been ordered to pay more than $650,000 to a former employee in a workplace injury case that one lawyer says will “up the ante” for other businesses in warehousing and manufacturing.
The case, heard in the District Court of Queensland, involves former Woolworths back dock assistant Michael John Perkins, who brought legal action against the supermarket giant for an injury sustained while using a “walkie stacker” in 2011, reports Fairfax.
Perkins began working for Woolworths in August 2011 and his role involved unloading pallets of goods from delivery trucks using a walkie stacker. In September, October and November of 2011, the machinery Perkins usually used and was trained for became inoperable, and a substitute machine was hired.
The replacement walkie stacker did not have a side shift function, which is used to adjust pallets that are off-centre.
Perkins and his co-workers instead used steel bars to adjust the pallets, which he told the court he began doing after he had “seen that the other guy was using it and doing it that way”, in the course of their work. He explained he received no instruction or training about the changed system.
After using the replacement walkie stacker, Perkins claimed he experienced lower back pain and down his right thigh.
Perkins resigned from Woolworths in November 2011 and the company argued in court he did not report the injury for four-and-a-half months. However, Perkins claimed he did make a report because he thought management would use it as an excuse to “get rid of me”.
Judge Morzone concluded that Woolworths was liable for damages given it was more likely than not that the use of the steel bars with the hired equipment caused Perkins’ injuries. The total amount awarded included $375,000 for future economic loss given Perkins had been unable to work and would be limited to sedentary duties in future employment.
Damages “a huge outlay”
The findings in this case are very significant for businesses, particularly those in the manufacturing industry, says employment and workplace safety lawyer at TressCox Peta Tumpey.
She says that the use of steel bars as levers when moving stock is common in a variety of businesses.
“This one I’m quite affected by because the use of levers and crowbars is quite a common practice just to move things around,” she tells SmartCompany, saying the scale of damages was “a huge outlay” for Woolworths.
“[This decision] will really set a line between the old school and a different generation of people who were a bit cautious.”
While it can be difficult for businesses in situations when equipment breaks down because they often cannot afford to put pause production, Tumpey says it’s important that managers do take time to review the risks of any new equipment, and ensure it is safe before proceeding.
“If you have to bring in replacement equipment, you still need to stop and have some kind of workplace health and safety meeting, and say, look, these two machines are not identical,” she says.
McDonald Murholme principal Andrew Jewell says the lesson for businesses is that even if a change to operations is only short term, proper processes around risk must be followed.
“Even if a change appears temporary, like with a replacement machine, safety consequences need to be carefully considered because the risk of injury is perhaps higher,” Jewell says.
“This case demonstrates that businesses will have to accept the consequences of not providing adequate training.”
It’s also key that businesses give their staff ample opportunity to raise workplace injury issues or incidents, with some claims being made only when staff resign or leave the business, Tumpey says.
“Most businesses now have quite firm processes in place from a WHS [workplace health and safety] perspective, but another trend I’m encouraging my clients to do is when they have their weekly toolbox meeting, the foreman should also say ‘has anyone had an incident or injury this week?’” she says.
Regular check-ins like mean workers have ample opportunity to raise a problem, Tumpey says.
“Again, most businesses have a review annually or six-monthly—[injuries and incidents] should be a question you start to introduce,” she says.
SmartCompany contacted Woolworths for a comment on the case result but did not receive a response prior to publication. SmartCompany was unable to contact Perkins prior to publication.