Safe systems of repetitive work: rotate and rest. Win or lose?

Two Queensland District Court decisions handed down in late February 2024 provide an opportunity to review the Court’s approach to considering liability in claims involving repetitive strain injuries.

The judgment in Hunt v ALDI Foods Pty Limited trading as ALDI [2024] QDC 15 was delivered by Sheridan DCJ in the District Court of Brisbane on 20 February 2024. Ms Hunt alleged she suffered a left arm injury during the course of her employment as the Store Manager of ALDI Cannon Hill between 2 and 8 November 2019. She alleged her workload, which included restocking supermarket shelves, significantly increased during the period because of the temporary closure of a nearby ALDI store and an international audit that involved “date checking every single product, price checking every single product, making sure everything was just completely in order for … the audit“.

Stated concisely, Ms Hunt alleged ALDI breached the duty of care owed to her by failing to assess, identify, warn, train, manually assist and rotate her away from risks involved with performing repetitive shelf-stocking activities. She alleged her work required that she repetitively lift stock and extend/ flex her wrists when placing stock onto shelves. She alleged she sustained a left arm repetitive strain injury during the relevant period because of her requirement to work extended hours.

The judgment in Bishop v Compass Group Remote Hospitality Service Pty Ltd [2024] QDC 14 was delivered by Rosengren DCJ in the District Court of Mackay on 21 February 2024. Ms Bishop worked as a mining camp utility attendant (kitchen hand) over a six-month period in 2019. She alleged that she suffered bilateral elbow injuries caused by repetitive use of her arms when performing kitchen hand tasks that involved repetitive movements involving high forces and high static loads. Ms Bishop would work a roster involving 14 consecutive days of 10.5-hour shifts, followed by 7 days off. Each shift included a 30-minute break and two 10-minute “smoko” breaks.

Ms Bishop alleged her employer breached the duty of care it owed to her by failing to take precautions which would have avoided the risk of injury posed to her by providing manual assistance, alternating repetitive and non-repetitive tasks, and enforcing a system of work by which she took her designated “smoko” breaks.

The following features are common to both judgments:

  • The obligations of an employer are to take reasonable care to avoid exposing its employees to an unnecessary risk of injury (Ferraloro v Preston Timber Pty Ltd (1982) 42 ALR 627);
  • There was a risk that, if an employee undertook repetitive tasks including manual handling, there was a need to enforce a system of work that involved frequently rotating that employee out of the repetitive task to avoid exposing them to a risk of injury;
  • Prior to each work event, both employees received comprehensive induction and training, including emphasis on the necessity to rotate away from repetitive tasks;
  • Ultimately neither Sheridan DCJ nor Rosengren DCJ were satisfied the respective Plaintiffs had discharged their onus with respect to the probability that their employer’s alleged breach caused their injury/ies.

Ms Bishop succeeded in proving her employer breached its duty by failing to implement a system whereby she was rotated out of a repetitive pot-washing task every 30 minutes. Additionally, her employer’s system of work failed to ensure she routinely took her designated ‘smoko’ breaks. Despite Ms Bishop succeeding in proving a breach of duty, Rosengren DCJ was not satisfied the breach caused her injuries. Instead, Rosengren DCJ accepted medical evidence that Ms Bishop’s injuries were explained by her gender, age and constitution.

An important distinction between the facts in Bishop and Hunt may be made because of the role in which Ms Hunt was employed, being the Aldi Store Manager. In Bishop, the employer’s breach related to a failure to implement and enforce a system whereby the team leader of each shift was responsible for ensuring workers took their designated breaks. However, in Hunt Sheridan DCJ accepted the Employer’s submission that Ms Hunt, as Store Manager, was herself the person responsible for managing staff resources, task allocation and the hours she worked. On this basis, Sheridan DCJ was not satisfied that ALDI had an obligation to do anything at all to prevent Ms Hunt from working the hours she ultimately did during the subject period.

In considering causation, Sheridan DCJ accepted the Defendant’s medical expert’s evidence there was no objective pathology of Ms Hunt’s injury and, hence, insufficient evidence to assert she had suffered a work-related injury.

KEy learnings

The Court’s application of key liability principles within these cases, which both included injuries suffered by workers performing repetitive duties, provides some key learnings for employers:

  • Employers must have in place systems for the comprehensive induction and training of new and existing staff, particularly related to tasks that are repetitive and/or involve high forces and high static loads;
  • It is essential that employers assess the risks involved with repetitive work tasks and then implement and enforce systems to prevent their employees from being exposed to any associated risks of injury;
  • Employers should implement and enforce systems of work that involve employees being rotated away from repetitive tasks;
  • Courts will consider an employee’s capacity to control how their employer’s system of work is implemented and enforced, and whether they have been appropriately trained to exercise their discretion to avoid exposing themselves to a risk of injury;
  • A key learning for Plaintiffs, as always, is to ensure the factual and medical evidence supports their allegations. A Plaintiff bears the onus of proof and where evidence is challenged by a Defendant, a court must be convinced the Plaintiff’s evidence is to be preferred before a Plaintiff will succeed.

This article was co-authored by Associate, Shane Lawlor.

“The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.”
For the latest publications and updates, click on the link below.
Scroll to Top

Book a consultation