The Australian Taxation Office has been involved in a long legal battle after an employee sustained injuries from changes made to her work station by casual employees.
Adjustments were made to the woman’s work station in spite of the sign she had placed on her desk which read “do not adjust or sit at this desk”.
The resulting 18 month legal proceedings and compensation pay out illustrate the liabilities which could arise from hot-desking, a practice in which multiple workers use the same work station at different times in order to reduce leased office space.
In April 2011, the employee experienced severe neck and shoulder pain, believing that this was a consequence of her desk and chair heights having been changed.
Initially, she was told by her supervisors that no one other than her had used the station – but the next day they apologised to the worker and informed her that casual staff had used it and made the adjustments.
The worker claimed that it took several weeks for an occupational health and safety representative to return the work station to her preferred settings.
“The ergonomic adjustments were major,” she said. “The chair height and back rest, the desk height, the distance of the monitor and the height of the monitor.”
She also said that she required cortisone injections to manage the pain the adjustments had caused.
According to the details of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) decision, Comcare paid the woman compensation between 2011 and 2013 for aggravation of neck pain and a shoulder sprain.
However, the tribunal supported Comcare’s decision to refuse the woman continued compensation as she had a diagnosed degenerative disease, which would have been causing her ongoing pain.
"Her chronic pain disorder (and) chronic pain syndrome has led to a secondary depression which whilst perhaps under treated is not going to change her productivity and employability and is secondary to her chronic pain," the doctor wrote.
In June 2012, a doctor said that an invalidity retirement should be considered for the woman.
“Her chronic pain disorder [and] chronic pain syndrome has led to a secondary depression which whilst perhaps under treated is not going to change her productivity and employability and is secondary to her chronic pain,” the doctor wrote. “Rehabilitation has been repeatedly unsuccessful. Sadly this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. It is my opinion that [she] is permanently and totally incapacitated for work.”
“It is certainly the case that employers will likely be held liable for injuries caused by poor working environment lacking proper ergonomics,” Athena Koelmeyer, managing director at Workplace Law, told HC. “Under most workers compensation legislation, there is strict liability subject to only very limited defences. With allegations of negligence, employers can defend themselves by denying the negligence. This means that it is essentially a “no fault” system for workers and injuries in the workplace will usually be found to be covered by workers compensation. This case is a good example, a worker had her proper ergonomic setup – someone changed it and rather than the worker identifying the problem and moving to fix it before using the chair again, she used the chair in the changed position and suffered injury. As you can see, even in these circumstances, the injury caused by the chair is compensable.”
She added that employers should be wary when implementing hot-desking or non-traditional seating arrangements into their workplace.
“In such an environment it will be almost impossible to ensure that a worker is able to have his or her professionally set up ergonomic workstation every day – resulting in the risk of injury when work is performed outside the properly set up environment,” Koelmeyer said. “Employers should have already learned this lesson with employees working from home in non-ergonomic working environments and injuries suffered by workers working in their own home in those situations have also been found to be entitled to workers compensation.”
“Employers all have a duty to provide a safe working environment and this means providing a desking solution that is safe for all employees to use,” she told HC. “These types of cases may well spell the end for the trendy flexible hot-desking workplace environment.”