It is generally accepted that the cumulative effect of manual
work may result in injury to the worker at some point but when is
an employer liable for such an injury?
In this Alert, Senior Associate Anna Hendry and Solicitor Hannah
Staunton consider the recent decision of Fofana v Inghams
Enterprises Pty Ltd  QDC 224 in which District Court
Judge Richard Jones dismissed a female process worker's claim
for damages for a back injury arising out of several years of
repetitive twisting and bending at work.
The plaintiff commenced work for Inghams Enterprises Pty Ltd
(employer) in April 2007. Her role as a process
worker required her to frequently work at two work stations
referred to as the "skinner" and the "feeder"
The plaintiff continued to work until December 2009 when she
went on maternity leave, returning to work in July 2010.
Approximately two months later in September 2010, the plaintiff
reported the onset of back pain which she alleged was caused by
carrying out constant and repetitive tasks at the
"skinner" and the "feeder" work stations. She
ceased employment with the employer on 14 December 2010 due to her
While the plaintiff made a number of allegations regarding acts
and omissions constituting a breach of duty on the part of the
employer, her primary allegations were that:
The employer failed to implement a safe system of work;
The employer ought to have made modifications to the
"skinner" station prior to her injury (those
modifications allegedly having been made afterwards).
Judge Jones accepted that the work performed by the plaintiff
was repetitive and that she was required to work at pace,
particularly at the "skinner" station. He also accepted
the evidence of the plaintiff's supervisor that the
modifications to the "skinner" station were in fact made
prior to the plaintiff's return from maternity leave and the
evidence of the plaintiff's ergonomic expert that the modified
"skinner" station was less likely to cause injury than
the unmodified station due to the postures adopted by workers. This
evidence effectively disposed of the plaintiff's allegations as
they related to the "skinner" station.
The court also accepted the evidence of Dr Campbell,
neurosurgeon, for the plaintiff. Dr Campbell opined that the
plaintiff developed back pain after undertaking repetitive bending
and twisting movements at work over a period of two or three years
(including the period prior to her maternity leave). He noted that
activities outside the plaintiff's employment would reasonably
be regarded as having contributed to her back pain also.
Having made the above evidentiary findings, the critical
question for the court then was:
"...whether the defendant has provided a safe
system of work and, more particularly, appropriately designed,
constructed and maintained plant and equipment and ensured that the
plaintiff was not otherwise unreasonably exposed to risk of injury
having regard to the manual tasks she was required to
Judge Jones held that the plaintiff failed to prove, on the
balance of probabilities, that her employer was liable for her back
injury based on the following reasoning:
The plaintiff did not sufficiently satisfy the court that the
employer had failed to properly instruct the plaintiff prior to her
working on the "feeder" and "skinner"
The plaintiff failed to establish that there was an unsafe
system of work in place for the "skinner" station. In
particular, when the plaintiff returned to work after maternity
leave in July 2010 the "skinner" station had been
The plaintiff submitted insufficient evidence to link her work
at "the feeder" station to her back injury.
In his closing remarks on liability, Judge Jones stated:
"In this case it was at least equally open to
infer that the injury was not the consequence of any breach of duty
on the part of the defendant but was simply an unfortunate work
related injury resulting from the cumulative effects of her
work...together with...other non work related
Take Away Points
While this District Court of Queensland decision provides some
comfort for employers whose workers undertake repetitive manual
work, employers should ensure:
adequate risk assessments are carried out in relation to all
manual tasks and are repeated periodically and following any
changes to the system of work;
rotation of work duties is implemented and enforced; and
consideration is given to the involvement of ergonomic
specialists in re-designing plant and equipment.
Contractors and principals should ensure they have appropriate insurance coverage instead of relying on indemnity clauses.
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