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January 2020

Invalid assessment by a medical practitioner

Invalid assessment by a medical practitioner

MBR v Parker (2012)

Facts

A 47-year-old coal mine worker was employed by Watpac. The worker’s primary role was to operate heavy machinery at the coal mine. While working at the mine, the worker suffered a whiplash injury.

Before the worker returned to work, Watpac sought a fitness for work assessment from its nominated medical adviser, Dr Parker. Dr Parker’s assessment of the worker was that he was morbidly obese. The doctor considered that because of this, the worker had a significant risk of suffering a heart attack and he was therefore deemed unfit to operate heavy machinery or to return to work.

Dr Parker never actually examined the worker, but relied on information from the worker’s personal doctor, which included the worker’s weight, body mass index (BMI), waist and neck measurements.

Judgment

The Queensland Court of Appeal set aside Dr Parker’s assessment that the worker was permanently unfit to return to work in his current role because:

  • the worker may never develop a heart condition; and
  • further assessment of the worker’s health was necessary.

The Court therefore held that Watpac was precluded from relying on Dr Parker’s assessment as a reason to not allow the worker to return to work.

Lessons

This case shows that workers must be individually and personally assessed by a medical practitioner before the employer can make conclusions about their ability to perform work. In particular, it demonstrates that you:

  • must consider the worker’s actual fitness when assessing their health, rather than making general assumptions about a worker’s likely fitness;
  • should not use individual factors, such as obesity, to make assumptions about a worker’s overall health; and
  • must balance your safety obligations with the need to act reasonably towards workers.
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