Storage of archive boxes brings down Qantas defence
Prior training and experience in occupational health and safety procedures does not reduce an employer’s duty to protect employees against foreseeable risks of harm.
- Whether boxes jammed under a desk presented a foreseeable risk that the defendant should have taken steps to guard against.
- Whether the plaintiff’s skill, training and experience in occupational health and safety procedures meant the defendant could rely on him performing allotted tasks in a sensible manner.
The plaintiff was an aircraft engineer employed by the defendant. Prior to this he had spent 17 years in the RAF (in England) and was promoted to sergeant. His duties included managing other staff and, relevantly, the plaintiff had OH&S training and had provided OH&S training to others.
In July 2017, the plaintiff was asked by his supervisor to look for some documents. When he was unable to find them in archive storage, he checked a stack of boxes which were located under his work desk. The boxes were jammed in tightly, and to remove them he had to sit down on his chair and lean forward to pull them out. In doing so, one of the boxes fell on his right arm causing a jarring sensation in his arm and immediate pain in his back.
The plaintiff suffered injuries to his right leg, right arm, back and neck. He underwent several surgeries after the incident and could not carry out his work duties at full capacity. The defendant eventually terminated the plaintiff’s employment and the plaintiff has not worked since.
The defendant argued that, given the plaintiff’s skill and experience (including OH&S training), the plaintiff should have known that what he was attempting to do was not safe and contributed to his own injuries.
The decision at trial
Stacking boxes under a desk so that they were jammed so tightly constitutes a foreseeable risk, and there were steps available to the defendant to guard against the risk, such as storing the boxes in the archive room, or next to the desk.
Prior training and experience in OH&S did not remove the defendant’s responsibility to ensure that the archive boxes were stored in a safe and easily accessible manner. The plaintiff was not trained in manual handling and the method he used to remove the boxes was instinctive. Alternate methods of moving the boxes may have also caused the plaintiff to injure himself. There was no contributory negligence on behalf of the plaintiff.
The risk of the mechanism of injury was foreseeable, even for a worker in the position of the plaintiff, with his skill and knowledge.
Damages of $1,174,974 were awarded for past economic loss and future loss of earning capacity (on the basis the plaintiff has no residual earning capacity). No claim for medical expenses or other damages was made by the plaintiff.
Implications for you
The provision of OH&S training, and even evidence of an employee’s prior experience in identifying risk, does not reduce an employer’s obligation to take reasonable care to identify and take steps to guard against foreseeable risk of harm in the workplace.