PAYDAY! $230K compo win for former Woolies worker
A FORMER Woolworths worker who was required to lift more than 2000 heavy boxes a day or face being sent home has won a landmark compensation case after being injured on the job.
Berhane Ghebreigziabiher Berhane, 54, a migrant from Africa, worked at the Woolworths distribution centre in Larapinta, south of Brisbane, between September 2010 and June 2011.
Mr Berhane worked in a cold room where the temperature could drop below zero, was required to lift and stack boxes weighing from 13kg to 24kg, repetitively and at high speed, up to shoulder height and over.
According to court documents, he was threatened with performance management and had at times been sent home for not doing his job quickly enough. During the day, a manager would decide if there was enough work for everyone, and employees who were lifting the fewest boxes would be sent home first.
Mr Berhane was at times required to lift up to 2160 cartons per day - some of which had stickers saying a two-person lift or machinery was needed. He was allowed a 10-minute and a 30-minute break during each eight-hour shift.
After suffering an injury in 2011, Mr Berhane was diagnosed with left shoulder bursitis and impingement. He required arthroscopic surgery the following year.
In 2013, he sued Woolworths for breaching its duty of care, alleging the supermarket had "failed to devise, implement and enforce a safe system of work for picking stock" and required him to work "excessive speed", leading to the injury.
He lost the initial court battle in the Queensland District Court, but his legal team at Shine Lawyers appealed the decision. The Court of Appeal in Brisbane this week ruled in favour of Mr Berhane, ordering Woolworths to pay $231,211.45 in compensation plus legal costs.
In his judgment, Court of Appeal Justice Phillip Morrison said 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".
"The computer system which directed the process of selection, also produced an assessment of each completed order and the daily average," he said. "In general terms, if a worker was to complete each job at the job's expected completion time throughout the work day, the worker would achieve a performance rating of 100 per cent.
"Mr Berhane became very concerned about achieving 100 per cent. He was unable to achieve it for some time. Because he was a casual worker he feared that should he not achieve 100 per cent he would lose his job. That was not an unreasonable fear."
Justice Morrison said Woolworths was "aware of the risk of harm, signified by the fact that it put in place systems for pre-employment examination, training, policies and supervision". "The training and induction program was comprehensive, and an adequate response to the risk of musculoskeletal injury, but only in theory," he said.
Shine Lawyers general manager Peter Gibson said the case was fought "tooth and nail and was being watched closely by both the legal and insurance fraternity".
"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," Mr Gibson said in a statement.
"Our client was expected to carry out repetitive movements and felt compelled to do so at high speed in fear that he would lose his job. 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.
"The system of work left our client vulnerable to injury and unfortunately he has paid the price. This decision will allow him to move forward in the knowledge that his actions may prevent other workers from being harmed in the same way."
A Woolworths spokeswoman said the supermarket was reviewing the court's decision. "At Woolworths, the safety of our team members is critically important and we remain committed to providing a safe workplace," she said.
"We achieve this through training and a range of policies and processes to improve workplace safety standards. We are continuously looking to how we can improve our performance."