A recent case at the Workers Compensation Commission has highlighted the need for work life balance, fatigue management and regular annual leave to be a priority in all staff management, including middle managers.  This weeks HR Highlight will briefly explore this industry specific case.

In a recent case before the Workers Compensation Commission, the death by heart attack, of a site manager and console operator at a 24 hour retail petrol station, while not at work, was found to be the responsibility of the employer, with over $500,000 in damages plus legal costs being awarded to the deceased’s family.

The site manager suffered a heart attack which resulted in death.  In considering the claim the Workers Compensation Commission found that a lack of work life balance, excessive hours and a highly stressful job was the cause of, or substantially contributed to the injury which led to the deceased’s ultimate death.

Case Details

The deceased worked as a site manager at a 24 hour service station in NSW.  A smoker, with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and categorised as obese, the site manager was recognised by the Workers Compensation Commission as a high risk for heart attack “it may well have been that [the deceased’s] lifestyle was such and that the advanced nature of the coronary artery disease found on autopsy was such that [the deceased] may have at some point in the future suffered a similar event”.

This recognition by the Workers Compensation Commission that the site managers existing health placed them in the high risk category for cardiovascular disease and heart attack “it may well have been that this worker was something of a time bomb.” has caused confusion for some business owners and industry commentators.  The question is asked, if the site managers health was so bad, and the doctors and Workers Compensation Commission recognise that the heart attack was likely irrespective of location or nature of work at some point, why then, is the employer being held responsible?

Employer’s Fault?

The answer may lie in the standard at the Workers Compensation Commission.  Under the governing legislation the applicants, the deceased three adult children, had to prove, on the balance of probabilities, and with a common sense test of causation, that the employment caused or was a substantial contributing factor in the injury which led to the deceased ultimate death.

In considering this causation the Commission received evidence from the site managers children and partner as to the hours of work, annual leave and general stress levels of the worker.  These submissions noted that it was not unusual for the site manager to do double shifts, work 7 days straight and to have annual leave requests denied based on the business being unable to locate appropriate replacements.

Submissions from the site’s former 2IC also highlighted that the site manager felt the site was understaffed, and felt compelled to undertake additional shifts to keep staff costs down and meet budget as well as cover shifts of other workers when they were unwell or on leave.  Submissions from the employer highlight that annual leave had been denied on business grounds, and that staffing requests were considered based on business needs.  In terms of the double shifts and weeks without time off, the employer noted that they site manager was in charge of the roster and was never asked to work such hours.  The employer noted that claims of understaffing were not raised with them and that the policy was for all site managers to come to the business with any issues or stressors for assistance.

In the decision, the Workers Compensation Commission noted that this is not a case of negligence and intent, culpability and control did not need to be proved.  What was required to establish was could stress at work and a lack of work life balance have substantially contributed to the injury which resulted in the site managers death.

In finding ‘yes’, the commission noted the fact that there was high levels of accumulated annual leave, that annual leave had been denied, that the site manager felt under pressure from the work structures and this resulted in long hours of work with little to no work life balance.  It further noted that some of the high risk factors for cardio vascular disease, such as being obese, and having high blood pressure and cholesterol, could have been exacerbated by the site managers work schedule, which left little to no time to exercise and look after their health generally.

Lessons for Businesses

This case highlights the need for businesses to actively engage with all workers, including managers and staff who are substantially in charge of their own work hours and work load.  This engagement on work life balance, annual leave accruals and general physical and mental health is a delicate one that requires businesses to understand the workload and, to some extent, home life of employees.

This in itself is a massive task, one that begins with recruitment and requires the business to very carefully engage with staff on their health and conscientiously avoid discrimination based on health based perceptions.  Not an easy task at all.

Key indicators should be established within each business, so that open discussion with staff can occur when stress or physical health based events begin occurring, such as absenteeism, excessive leave accrual, moral changes, physical changes, workload changes etc.  The ultimate goal is healthy, productive, stress free employees and functional successful businesses.  A set and forget approach, particularly to remotely or procedurally/budgetary managed staff, is not enough to protect the staff or the business.

Here to Help

ACAPMA Workplace Relations Professionals are available to assist members with all workplace relations matters, on 1300 160 270 or you can email elishar@acapma.com.au. Through the Christmas period and indeed all year round, ACAPMA members can access resources and can call on the advice and support of the ACAPMAlliance Workplace Relations Professionals on 1300 160 270.

HR Highlights are things to consider, implement and watch out for in your business. They are provided as general advice and you should seek further advice on your situation by  calling 1300 160 270 and speaking to one of ACAPMA Workplace Relations Professionals its free for members. ACAPMA membership is affordable at only $770 per year for a single site, which represents great value with sites gaining HR advice support and representation as well as a raft of other benefits and discounts.Apply for ACAPMA membership here.