By Jeff Salton
Recently, Woolworths was ordered to pay $231,000 in damages to a worker who aggravated an existing shoulder injury by repeatedly having to lift and stack items from pallets to above his head, and reaching away from his body to collect items from the middle of pallets (Berhane v Woolworths Ltd (2017)).
Items on pallets weighed between 3kg – 17kg and the worker testified that in order to meet his performance targets, he was pressured into quick, repetitive movements that accelerated his shoulder condition.
As part of the evidence put before the Queensland Court of Appeal, justices were told that 10 to 15 per cent of people aged 40 to 49 years had degenerative rotator cuff disease, and of those, 15 per cent developed bursitis.
Figures like that show this type of injury can become common if workers are not monitored in the way they approach pick and packing duties and that companies need robust policies in the place to prevent repetitive strain-type injuries.
What can companies do to reduce the risk of workers injuring themselves and potentially having to make massive payouts in damages?
Editor-in-Chief of the Health & Safety Handbook, Michael Selinger, says there is nothing specific in the harmonised Work Health and Act Safety Act (Act) or Regulations (Regulations) regarding the storage of objects above head height (the legislation we refer to does not apply in Victoria or Western Australia, although your duties will be similar).
Michael says that in the first instance, you should be guided by the general duty under the Act, that is, as a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and other persons in the workplace.
As part of that duty, you must ensure as far as reasonably practicable, among other things, the provision and maintenance of a work environment without risks to health and safety, the provision and maintenance of safe systems of work and the provision of any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary to protect all persons from risks to their health and safety arising from work carried out as part of the conduct of the business or undertaking.
Managing risks to health and safety
“Depending on your workplace and your operations, there are some foreseeable risks to health and safety when storing objects above head height, such as the risk of falls from ladders when accessing objects and the risk of employees injuring themselves when accessing items stored above head height,” Michael says.
In light of the penalty imposed on Woolworths, ideally companies should conduct a risk assessment to identify any reasonably foreseeable risks that may relate to storing objects above head height.
Michael says the following five points from part 3.1 of the Regulations should assist PCBUs in managing risks to workers’ health and safety:
- Identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that could give risk to risks to health and safety.
- Eliminate the risk to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable, and where that is not possible, minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable.
- Implement control measures if it is not possible to eliminate the risk (see Reg. 36).
- Ensure that any control measure is maintained (see Reg. 37).
- Review the control measure (see Reg. 38).
He adds that depending on the safety risks posed by storing objects above head height that you have identified for your specific workplace, the following regulations may be relevant to the risks to health and safety:
– Part 4.2, which relates specifically to managing the risks to health and safety relating to a musculoskeletal disorder associated with a hazardous manual task;
– Part 4.4, which relates to the management of the risk of falls in the workplace, which may be relevant depending on the heights at which objects are stored and the use of ladders.