Woolworths worker awarded $230k in landmark case

by John Hilton11 Aug 2017
Woolworths employee Berhane Ghebreigziabiher Berhane has been awarded more than $230,000 in damages after the Court of Appeal in Brisbane found warehouse demands had aggravated a shoulder injury.

The 54-year-old migrant from Africa worked at the Woolworths distribution centre in Larapinta between September 2010 and June 2011.

The appeal judge found Woolworths' demands on its Queensland distribution centre workers violated safety laws and aggravated the onset of a shoulder injury.

Berhane’s job involved lifting cartons weighing up to 17 kilograms onto pallets, an action he would perform 1600 times on a normal day and up to 2160 times.

"The system of work involved frequent lifting away from the body of weights in excess of recommendations of the Worksafe Victoria Guide to Manual Order Picking," said Court of Appeal Justice Phillip Morrison in his ruling.

Berhane worked in a chiller room where the temperature dropped to below zero and he was given one 10-minute and one 30-minute break during an eight-hour shift.

Workers at the centre were required to meet performance targets, and Berhane was concerned about being sent home from his shifts early or losing his job if he did not meet expectations.

"Because of Mr Berhane's concern about the system and his job security, it was likely he took shortcuts such as leaning across a pallet rather than walking around it, or carrying more than one item. Other workers did exactly that," said Justice Morrison.

Less than 12 months after starting at the Larapinta distribution centre, Berhane was diagnosed with subacromial bursitis and impingement of the left shoulder, which his doctor found was caused by constant heavy lifting.

However, the court was told Berhane already had a shoulder condition when he started the job and would not have been injured were it not for that condition. He now suffers from ongoing pain.

Woolworths submitted they had no duty of care because of Berhane's pre-existing condition.

But the judge found policies and practices were not followed at the warehouse, which meant "pickers were allowed, or required, to reach, holding significant weights away from the body, in breach of Woolworths' own training instructions, standards and guidelines," Justice Morrison said.

HRD contacted Woolworths for comment and a spokesperson said “the safety of our team members is critically important and we remain committed to providing a safe workplace”.

“We achieve this through training and a range of policies and processes to improve workplace safety standards,” said the spokesperson.

“We are continuously looking to how we can improve our performance and are currently reviewing the Court's decision.”

Berhane was represented by Shine Lawyers who said the case had been closely watched in the supermarket industry and would set a precedent for workers who were injured on the job.

Shine Lawyers general manager Peter Gibson added that a “negligent work system encouraged employees to work harder and faster — where some were frequently sent home if their rating was less than the others”.

"It has confirmed a key point of law which clarifies an employer's duty to protect their employees, particularly when repetitive, high-intensity work is involved," he said.

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