Publish date: 22 June 2020
Adapt and survive Hugh Powell

As Australia continues to fight its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have been forced to shut down or pivot their operations.

Of those who are still operating, most appear to be doing everything possible to retain workers. Whether that is through reduced hours or modifying roles. While well intentioned, these measures have the potential to cause bigger problems in the workplace.

When an employer reduces its workforce, those employees who are left are inevitably required to shoulder extra responsibility. For example, being placed into a management position or being asked to perform a broader variety of tasks not previously performed. The decision to shift workers around and change the scope of their role is usually made quickly, out of necessity.

While I am sure that workers in this position would be grateful to have retained their employment, these changes are likely to have the unintended effect of increasing the risk of workplace injury they are exposed to. This is because of the new and unfamiliar environment in which they are now required to work, or being thrust into an unfamiliar position or a position in which they are not adequately trained.

Financial pressure does not, in and of itself, alleviate the duty of care an employer owes to its employees. In Queensland, the scope of that duty requires an employer to protect employees from reasonably foreseeable risks of injury in the workplace. This extends to providing safe equipment, safe systems of work and training. It is not enough for employers to simply shift workers around and then leave them to their own devices to figure out how to perform their new role. Doing so will greatly increase the risk of injury in the workplace. It is not hard to understand why.

Someone who had previously spent most of their day sitting at a desk who is then asked to perform a physical role is unlikely to be aware of safe lifting techniques for lifting, handling and carrying heavy items. Workers, in those circumstances, are clearly put at increased risk of suffering injury. There is no shortage of caselaw attesting to that. Where does this leave everybody?

It can be a high risk, low reward situation. Workers are exposed to increased risk of injury in an effort to sustain a business.

At the end of the day, regardless of any operational decisions made by a business, the buck stops with the employer to ensure the workers safety.

Until the economy recovers sufficiently to allow businesses to return to their full roster, it would not surprise me if the rate of workplace injuries does not reduce proportionately with the increased unemployment rate for the reasons mentioned here.

Unless workplace health and safety considerations are seriously considered during efforts to quickly adapt to economic changes, the true cost is likely to be born by workers themselves.

Hugh Powell
Hugh Powell
Partner & Sunshine Coast Leader
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