In the recent decision of McGreevy v Cannon Hill Services Pty Ltd [2016] QSC 29, Boddice J of the Supreme Court of Queensland found the employer  breached their duty of care to the worker in failing to properly supervise and enforce its system of work, creating a risk of personal injury to the Plaintiff.  

Associate Janine Oberhardt and Partner Robert Tidbury provide a summary of the Court’s decision. 

Facts

The Plaintiff, Paul McGreevy, was employed as a labourer and meat boner by Cannon Hill Services Pty Ltd (CHS), which operated a meat processing facility.  He claims to have suffered personal injury on Monday, 19 March 2012 as a result of throwing a meat cut, with an estimated weight of 5-10kg, onto a conveyor. The Plaintiff alleged that as he went to throw the meat onto the conveyor, it became caught in his mesh glove, causing him to move awkwardly. As a consequence, the Plaintiff sustained injuries to his lumbar spine and cervical spine associated with chronic myofascial pain syndrome and a secondary psychological injury.

The Court heard evidence that on Monday mornings the fat on the carcasses was harder than it was on other mornings, as they had been refrigerated over the weekend. This made the boners’ work more time consuming and would sometimes result in a backup of carcasses on the production line. Further, the Plaintiff was required to wear metal mesh gloves with buckles and straps on his non knife hand and forearm. The Plaintiff‘s middle mesh glove was loose fitting and his glove tensioning device broke. The Plaintiff alleged he requested a replacement, but none was provided.

On the morning of the accident, the Plaintiff alleged that there was a back up of carcasses on the process line. The Plaintiff’s evidence was that he asked his supervisor to slow the pace of the processing line but his request was denied. This resulted in the Plaintiff being required to work shoulder to shoulder with the other workers and stand further away from the conveyor belt and his work station. Therefore it was difficult for the Plaintiff to place the cuts of meat on to the conveyor belt, in accordance with the employer’s system of work. Instead, the Plaintiff threw the meat onto the belt from approximately 1 metre away. In throwing the meat, he sustained the injuries.

Decision

Boddice J examined in detail the supervision which was in place on the day of the accident. The Court accepted that it was the supervisor’s job to scrutinise the production line and address major problems.  Supervisors were present in each area of the floor. It was also accepted that it would be highly unlikely that there would be no supervisor present on the production floor at any time during a shift. 

The Court found that CHS was aware that the meat processed on a Monday morning was harder than that processed on other days of the week. As such it was important there be proper supervision of the production chain to observe and address any back up of carcasses. The supervisor had the authority to slow down or stop the chain in the event of a back up.

However, evidence was heard that during the shift in question, there was a time when the Plaintiff’s supervisor had left the boning area to attend to administrative matters. Whilst it was accepted that there were other supervisors present on the floor, they were attending to their own areas.

Boddice J also acknowledged the employer’s system whereby a worker could attract the attention of a supervisor to alert them to any issues on the production line. However, the Court found that it was not reasonable to expect a worker to attract a supervisor’s attention, as the worker could receive a warning should they fall behind in their work. Therefore, the risk of receiving such a warning created a deterrent for workers in attracting the attention of their supervisor. This, in turn, could result in a worker attempting to adopt other work practices in order to remove the backup of carcasses.

In view of the circumstances, the Court determined that the supervisor should have recognised that there was a back up of carcasses and that the Plaintiff was working contrary to standard procedures. The supervisor ought to have taken steps to slow down or stop the chain. The failure to have a supervisor in place on the boning floor on the morning in question placed the Plaintiff in a position where he was at risk of injury. Therefore, the Plaintiff established that the injury arose as a consequence of the defendant’s failure to properly enforce its system of work. 

The Plaintiff was awarded $122,485.00 in damages.

Takeaway points

  • A question often asked by employers is ‘how much supervision is enough?’ This case demonstrates that Courts place high expectations on employers when it comes to supervising their employees. In this matter, even though it was accepted that there were other supervisors on the floor at the time whose attention could have drawn to the problem, that was not considered enough in the context of a busy production line susceptible to backlogs.
  • Examine your system of work. If your worker reports an issue, is there a potential negative ramification for that worker? If so, consider changing that system. Ensure there is no negative flow on effects, direct or indirect, which would discourage workers to report issues or deviate from safe working procedures.
  • Where the employer’s system of work provides for a supervisor to be present in the workplace for the purposes of identifying and attending to hazards arising in the course of the workplace’s operations, it is essential that appropriate arrangements are in place for relief personnel to be on hand to assume supervision, should the designated supervisor be detained or required elsewhere.