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Risk of injury for manual handling

Griffiths v State of Queensland [2011] QCA 057
Muir, Chesterman and White JJA
1 April 2011

Background

The injured worker was employed as a nursing assistant at the Nambour General Hospital, where she worked in the Central Sterilising Service Department (CSSD). The CSSD is a large industrial washing area, equipped with sterilising dishwashers and other equipment for medical sterilisation and cleaning.

Each month the CSSD unit processes tens of thousands of pieces of surgical equipment of varying size and weights. One piece of equipment in particular is a soda lime canister, weighing approximately five kilograms, with the majority of the weight distributed at one end (approximately 70:30 ratio).

The facts

On 5 October 2004, the worker was lifting a soda lime canister preparing to place it in a decontaminator. She used a flat palm grip on the heavier end of the canister, however it slipped from her grasp. It was when she bent down in an attempt to catch the falling canister that she was injured.

The trial was a dispute over liability only; there was no dispute that the worker was injured in this event.

Primary judgement

On 6 August 2010, Justice Daubney dismissed the worker's claim, ruling that the employer had discharged its duty under Section 26 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995 (Qld) (the Act). This included the employer complying with the Manual Tasks Code of Practice 2000 (the Code), the relevant code of practice within the meaning of this section.

The Court found that a reasonable employer, prior to the incident, would not have foreseen a serious and probable risk of an employee picking up the canister (in the way described by the injured worker), dropping it, and causing an injury.

The Court was not satisfied that the injured worker had established there were any reasonable practical or corrective measures that the employer could have implemented that would have reduced the risks associated with her work tasks.

The worker appealed this ruling to the Queensland Court of Appeal.

The appeal

The appeal was heard on 24 February 2011 in the Queensland Court of Appeal, before Justice Muir, Justice Chesterman and Justice White.

The main issue of the appeal was whether the employer had adopted and followed 'the way' of managing exposure to the risk, as stated in the Code. Failing that, whether the employer followed all factors specified in s. 26(3)(b) of the Act, which states:

If a code of practice states a way of managing exposure to a risk, a person discharges the person's workplace health and safety obligations for exposure to the risk only by doing all of the following:

(i) adopting and following a stated way that gives the same level of protection against the risk;

(ii) taking reasonable precautions, and

(iii) exercising proper diligence.

In a majority decision, the appeal was allowed with costs.

In reaching their decision, particular attention was paid to how the Code applies to the Act, and how the Code focuses on the identification of 'problem tasks' as an aspect of risk management for manual tasks (that have the potential to contribute to a musculoskeletal disorder). In this case, the employer had no systemic process for identifying manual tasks that had the potential to contribute to a musculoskeletal injury (which is the focus of the Code). Also, the employer knew that two or three other workers had previously expressed concerns about the awkwardness of the particular item in an informal conversation they had with a Manager.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the employer had not followed the Code, and therefore had not discharged their obligation of adopting and following a process that gives a level of protection against the risk.

The worker was awarded the previously agreed amount of $600,000, plus costs of the proceedings.