A recent decision of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory has provided guidance on the extent of an employer’s duty to employees performing ‘simple and commonplace’ tasks.

In Cowie v Gungahlin Veterinary Services Pty Ltd, Ms Cowie fell from the second step of a three-step stepladder while attempting to place blankets onto a shelf at ‘eye level’. Ms Cowie could not explain the exact cause of her fall, but the Court found it likely that the ladder tipped as Ms Cowie inadvertently overreached to place blankets on the shelf.

Ms Cowie alleged her employer was liable for the fall because it had not provided her with any training on the safe use of the stepladder, it had not conducted any risk assessment of her duties or the workplace, and it should have used an alternative method of storage that would have negated the use of a stepladder altogether (i.e. having all products accessible from the ground).

At first instance, the Magistrates Court held that no instruction was required for the use of a stepladder due to the simple and commonplace nature of the task and it would have been unreasonable to require the employer to totally eliminate all storage options not accessible from the ground.

On appeal, the Supreme Court was required to determine whether it was reasonable to have a system of work that carried with it some increased risk of injury or whether an alternate system of storage was reasonably required.

The Court held that:

  • the system of work involving the stepladder was reasonable because the task was a relatively simple, domestic one that did not require particular training; and
  • a reasonable employer would not have adopted the alternate method of storage (i.e. that would have negated the use of the stepladder). Ms Cowie’s appeal was therefore unsuccessful.

It reaffirmed the Magistrates Court’s view that assessing reasonableness involves a factual determination that takes into account community standards but does not necessarily require the elimination of risk.

If the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) had applied, it is expected that the risk would not have overcome the ‘not insignificant’ requirement in section 305B(1)(b) and, even if it did, would not warrant a complete change to the employer’s storage system pursuant to section 305B(1)(c) and (2).