Worker awarded $125k damages for back strain tossing a t-bone steak
On 1 March 2016, His Honour Justice Boddice, sitting in the Supreme Court at Brisbane handed down a decision on the case of a meat worker who suffered back strain whilst throwing a meat cut onto a nearby conveyor belt.
The work accident
Mr McGreevy was working as a slicer and boner at a meat processing plant owned and operated by Cannon Hill Services Pty Ltd. In the course of his work slicing up forequarters of beef, Mr McGreevy went to throw a cut of meat weighing around 10kg onto a nearby conveyor belt. In the process of doing this, he suffered pain in his lower back and sustained a back injury.
Mr McGreevy brought a claim for Common Law damages for the back injury he sustained in his work, which was strenuously defended by the employer. The employer argued that it was well known by boners and slicers within the meat processing plant that meat was not to be thrown, and Mr McGreevy had been instructed by his supervisors and managers that this was a sackable offence.
Defendant alleges throwing meat was a sackable offence
Despite evidence being provided at Court that there was some instruction to workers that they were not to throw meat whilst undertaking their slicing and boning duties, the Plaintiff was able to adduce evidence at trial that throwing of meat onto the conveyor belt was a normal and everyday practice by workers at the plant. Evidence was also submitted to show that the need for Mr McGreevy to throw the meat was due to the manner in which he was required to undertake the work, and the set up of the work environment.
The Plaintiff provided evidence to the Court that when the carcasses being sent down the chain to be processed became backlogged because slicers could not keep up with the chain, this resulted in a build up of carcasses on the chain and the worker being displaced from the conveyor belt, requiring him to have to throw the meat in order to keep up with the pace of the process line. The Plaintiff also raised issue with a lack of proper supervision of the workplace, arguing that all that was necessary to overcome the displacement problem was identifying the backlog and pressing a button to stop the chain or reduce the chain speed.
The Plaintiff provides evidence of an unsafe system of work
The Plaintiff also provided evidence that the steel mesh glove which he was required to wear whilst undertaking the slicing and boning work at the processing plant, was ill fitting and tended to hang down, causing a catching hazard whilst undertaking the work. Mr McGreevy gave evidence that as he went to throw the meat onto the conveyor belt, he felt the meat catch onto the steel mesh glove, causing him to halt and twist awkwardly in order to try to save the meat cut from falling onto the floor of the plant and becoming unusable.
The Plaintiff testified that a glove tensioning device that fitted over the glove had also been requested from the Plaintiff's supervisor some time prior to the Plaintiff's injury occurring, but had not been forthcoming from the Plaintiff's supervisor.
Court finds an unsafe system of work
The Court agreed with the Plaintiff, finding that the system of work at the plant was not safe and the risk of injury arising from it was reasonably foreseeable and not insignificant. The Court held that a safer system of processing the meat was available to the Defendant, which a reasonable employer in the position of the Defendant ought to have identified and introduced. The Court considered that the hazard posed by the build up of the meat carcasses on the chain did result in the Plaintiff being displaced from where he was supposed to complete his slicing duties, and was the reason why he had to throw or toss the meat onto the conveyor belt.
The Court found that the response to the risk required of the Defendant was a simple one - to implement proper supervision of the workplace so that any difficulty slicers were experiencing keeping up with the process line was identified, and the chain stopped when necessary so as to avoid a build up of carcasses on the line and the resultant displacement.
Damages awarded to the Plaintiff
In awarding damages for the back injury Mr McGreevy sustained in his work, the Court considered that although the back injury had generally resolved since the work accident, the Plaintiff did continue to experience some minor ongoing problems with his back that interfered with his capacity for work.
Since the workplace accident, the Plaintiff had given up his work as a slicer and boner and had eventually obtained work in a travel agency as a customer service operator, where he was working at the time of the trial. The Court awarded damages totalling around $125,000, which included awards of approximately $40,000 for past economic loss and $50,000 for future economic loss.
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