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$120K payout for rushing office worker

A worker has been awarded $120,000 in damages.
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$120K payout for rushing office worker

$120K payout for rushing office worker

21 January 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

A worker who was injured when rushing to answer the phone has been awarded $120,000 in damages, after successfully arguing that her injury would not have happened if she’d been provided with a headset enabling her to take calls while working away from her desk.

The injury

The worker was an office manager for a cleaning company in Canberra. Her duties often required her to work in a back room or otherwise away from the reception desk where the phone and her computer were located. This meant that whenever the phone rang, she rushed back to reception to get to it.

In January 2015, she’d been working in the back room when the phone rang, so as usual, she rushed back to the desk. As she arrived at her desk and leaned over to pick up the phone, she rolled her ankle and suffered an inversion sprain.

The worker claimed that her employer had breached its duty of care to her and that she suffered loss and damage as a result.

At the first hearing, however, her claim was dismissed on the basis that her injury was not reasonably foreseeable. She appealed this decision, and her case was heard in the Magistrates Court of the Australian Capital Territory.

In court

The worker claimed that if she missed calls, they were diverted to her employer’s head office in Sydney, after which she would be reprimanded for missing them. She said she always tried to answer the phone within two rings, but that she’d never been told that doing so was expected of her by her employer.

She gave evidence that when working out the back in the storeroom she was quite often up a ladder, holding boxes, or opening and closing the roller door for supplies to be delivered. Moreover, she said that boxes on the floor of the storeroom made getting in and out of the room ‘a bit of an obstacle course’.

She maintained that on a number of occasions she had asked her manager for a cordless phone, a cordless headset and an answering machine so she would not need to keep rushing back to her desk, but her request had been refused.

The branch manager at the premises argued that there were other workstations with phones closer to the back room, and the worker could have answered incoming calls from any of these other workstations. He also said he had never reprimanded her for missing calls, though the evidence suggested there had been complaints to the Sydney office about the Canberra phone going unanswered.

He said the reason for declining her request for a headset, cordless phone or other such device was that the purchase would not have been approved by head office because ‘we weren't getting enough phone calls to warrant a headset’.

The magistrate found that though the worker may have overstated the frequency of phone calls and some other matters, answering calls was an important part of her job. She chose to answer incoming calls by way of the phone at the reception desk because it permitted her to access her computer if that was necessary for the purpose of answering a query.

He noted that the threshold for the risk of harm to be considered ‘not insignificant’ is relatively low, and found that in this case the risk of harm to the worker was foreseeable and not insignificant, and that a reasonable person would have taken the precaution of providing a headset or other suitable device to enable the worker to answer the phone while away from her usual desk. In not doing so, the employer had been negligent.

He ordered the employer to pay damages of $119,098.29 to the worker.

The bottom line: Rushing in a workplace can entail a risk of trips, stumbles and musculoskeletal injuries. Employers should take reasonable precautions to control foreseeable risks of injuries that may not be insignificant.

Read the judgment

Michel v Broadlex Services Pty Ltd [2020] ACTMC 27 (11 December 2020)

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