Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: your right to work safety

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Every Australian worker has the right to a safe workplace. The law requires all employers to create a safe working environment to minimise injury and illness in the workplace. However Australian Bureau of Statistics show that during 2013 to 2014, over half a million people suffered a work-related injury or illness. Some occupations are more dangerous than others but culturally and linguistically diverse workers are a high risk group.

Taiwanese backpacker Shaine (Shai-nee) Lee was working at a Perth butcher factory when an unexpected accident almost severed her finger.

Shaine Lee was working at a Perth butcher factory when an unexpected accident almost severed her finger.

“Because I was working at the sausage division, I was changing the pipe, I had the tool in my right hand, when I was changing the tube, I accidentally touched the sensor and turned it on. The tool I was holding flew out and landed on my finger. I didn’t realise how serious it was but after I took off my glove, I found that my flesh had almost come off.” 

As Shaine was employed through a labour hire contractor without insurance, she had to fight for her entitlements through her union as well as engage a lawyer. She has since returned to Taiwan after receiving medical treatment and three months of compensation for lost wages due to the injury. Shaine is currently waiting for the final settlement but her life will never be the same.

“After I recovered, I found that my finger is already shorter than before.”

Cases like these are common for temporary workers on working holiday visas according to Tim Nelthorpe from the National Union of Workers (NUW). He shares the story of a Taiwanese backpacker who had his three fingers chopped off whilst working at a meat factory.

Cases like these are common for temporary workers on working holiday visas.

“That employer only had to pay him compensation for 6 months because he’s not allowed to work for that employer for longer than 6 months. He could still receive payments from work cover but his visa is one year and possibly two years at best. So effectively because he’s done the injury towards the end of his visa, he’s got to make a decision. Does he want to stay in Australia to fight for his common law rights to sue the company, which could be worth quite a significant amount of money, or he can choose to settle and receive a lump sum work cover payment which is significantly less money?”

With limited English and a significant injury, [another injured] young man decided to take a lump sum payment and return to his home country where he could be with his family and receive care.

With limited English and a significant injury, the young man decided to take a lump sum payment and return to his home country where he could be with his family and receive care. Tim Nelthorpe says when an accident happens at work, the most important initial step is to fill out an incident report. This ensures that everything is well-documented for the employee to claim workers’ compensation.

If the worker has a significant injury or an injury that will prevent them from performing their normal duties, the employer should advise the employee to visit a doctor.

“If the worker has a significant injury or an injury that will prevent them from performing their normal duties, the employer should advise the employee to visit a doctor. That doctor can then write up a work cover medical certificate and a certificate of capacity which will outline what the worker can and can’t do.”  

Worker’s compensation is a form of insurance payments to employees if they are injured or are sick due to their work. The payment schemes are governed by states and territories and can include wages to employees if they are not fit for work and payments to cover medical expenses and rehabilitation. NUW’s Tim Nelthorpe says an employee should then fill out a worker’s compensation form.

Worker’s compensation is a form of insurance payments to employees if they are injured or are sick due to their work.

“The worker at that point should also fill in a work cover form which will be lodged with the insurer.  The worker than takes that certificate back to their employer and the employer is obligated to provide duties that fit within the certificate of capacity or if they do not have suitable duties to provide that worker with payments that match that worker’s normal payments.”

ABS data shows that of the 531,800 workers work related illness or injuries, most were from lifting, pushing, pulling or bending (34 per cent), hitting or cutting an object (20 per cent), falls (13 per cent) and repetitive movement (9 per cent).

ABS data shows that of the 531,800 workers work related illness or injuries, most were from lifting, pushing, pulling or bending.

Some jobs are more dangerous than others. 2013 data from Safe Work Australia shows the highest injury rates occurred with labourers, transport workers and tradespeople. Safe Work Australia develops national policies to improve work, health and safety and workers’ compensation arrangements. Assistant director in strategic and compensation policy Helen Righton says there are penalties for employers who don’t provide a safe environment.

There are penalties for employers who don’t provide a safe environment.

“They can actually be prosecuted. In all states and territories, there are regulators so they might be called Work Safe or Work Health and Safety in that state. They can actually take that employer to court if a worker is hurt or if they haven’t paid their workers’ compensation premiums. Now workers can always report to those authorities if they want to.”

Employers must also provide training and have the right tools and equipment to ensure workers can perform their duties safely.

“That could mean showing the worker how to do their job safely and making sure they have the right tools and equipment. Things like a hard hat, or goggles or safety glasses and gloves and boots. Another important thing for employers to remember and for workers to know is that the law says they can’t ask a worker to do anything that needs a special license even if it’s just driving a car. More importantly, dangerous equipment like a crane or a forklift if a person doesn't have that license. “

Employees also have some responsibilities.

Employees also have some responsibilities. Workers should only use equipment once shown how to use it properly, not wearing the right safety equipment or not using it properly, taking short cuts or using your mobile phone while you’re working. Meanwhile NSW’s Work Health and Safety Roadmap identified diverse workers as a high risk group. The CFMEU’s construction division National Secretary Dave Noonan says all workers including those on temporary visas should speak up.

NSW’s Work Health and Safety Roadmap identified diverse workers as a high risk group.       

“They should make a complaint. The worst that can happen is that you do work and it’s unsafe and you get hurt or get killed at work. There’s no worst outcome for families than that. Lots of employers will put people on on temporary visas knowing they’re less likely to argue the case but the strict legal position is the safety laws apply to everybody equally and that's what workers should demand, doesn’t matter where they come from in the world. In this country they've got a right to work safely. They've got a right of law to refuse unsafe work. They can get assistance from the government regulator in each state. At the end of the day the union is there to defend workers.”

Dave Noonan says temporary workers often don’t report exploitation, bullying or unsafe practices at work for fear of being sent back to their homeland.

Temporary workers often don’t report exploitation, bullying or unsafe practices at work for fear of being sent back to their homeland.

“The employer can’t just send you back home. If you have an issue around occupational health and safety or underpayment of wages, you are entitled to get advice from your employer or from the government regulator and if the employer tries to send people home for making those enquiries, that's unlawful.”

For more information on working safely in Australia, go to the Safe Work Australia.

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