Pre-existing injuries: What are HR’s legal obligations?

Employee asserted her work duties were 'major aggravating factor'

Pre-existing injuries: What are HR’s legal obligations?

In a recent case, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal considered whether work-related typing duties aggravated an employee’s pre-existing carpal tunnel syndrome. The applicant was employed as a customer solutions service officer with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

In February 2017, she lodged a workers’ compensation claim after a change in her workstation equipment led her to experience a pinched nerve in her neck, as well as wrist and shoulder pain. Comcare subsequently accepted liability to pay compensation for “an aggravation of soft tissue injuries” under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 s 14.

In May 2017, the applicant was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Following successful cortisone injections, she returned to work in June 2017. However, a few months later, the applicant lodged a second workers’ compensation claim for her carpal tunnel syndrome, which she submitted was caused by computer-based work and exercise physiology treatment previously approved and paid for by Comcare. Comcare denied liability for the applicant’s second claim.

During the hearing, the applicant conceded that her carpal tunnel syndrome was a pre-existing condition and not caused by her employment. Further, although she relied on several medical expert witnesses, who stated that the applicant’s work duties were a “major aggravating factor” for her condition, the lack of evidence behind these conclusions led the Tribunal to describe them as “incomplete and unconvincing”.

By contrast, one occupational physician who treated the applicant concluded that there was “no evidence base” that her diagnosis was related to her work duties. Rather, the physician found that, although the applicant was not diagnosed until May 2017, she had shown symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome from February that year.

With this, the Tribunal was satisfied that the applicant’s worsening symptoms throughout 2017 were a “natural progression” of her condition. It further found that her condition was “complicated by the fact that there was a significant delay in the diagnosis and treatment”.

Ultimately, although the Tribunal was satisfied that the progression of the applicant’s condition could be described as a “physiological change”, it was not persuaded that her employment contributed to this change. The Tribunal affirmed Comcare’s decision to reject compensation.

Key Takeaways:

  • Where an employee’s pre-existing symptoms worsen as a result of their condition’s “natural progression”, rather than through a physiological change to their work duties, they may be unsuccessful in receiving workers’ compensation

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