An employee rolled her ankle and injured herself after rushing to answer a phone call during work. It was found the risk of injury was not insignificant, and the employer should have taken precautions to prevent the risk of harm, by purchasing a headset. The employee was awarded $119,098, which was agreed to by both parties. 

In Issue

The main issue considered in this case was whether the employer took all steps reasonably practicable to prevent workers from being injured. The issues for determination fell on whether the risk of harm was insignificant and whether a reasonable person in the employer’s position would have taken the precautions against that risk of harm.

The background

The plaintiff in this case was an office manager (employee) for a cleaning company in the ACT. As part of the employee’s role, her duties as an office manager would from time to time involve access to the front and rear storage rooms. This meant she was required to move around the office on a “frequent basis”. At the time of the incident, the employee was in the back of the office “organising the uniform cupboard”, and while rushing to the reception desk to answer the phone, she had rolled her ankle.

The employee had on at least two occasions asked her employer to provide a headset to assist with answering phone calls when she was moving around the office. It was established that answering the phone was an important part of the employee’s job, despite the volume of calls being low. The employer considered due to the number of calls being low, it did not justify getting a headset. Although it was not frequent, the Court found it was common for the employee to need to return to her desk at reception to answer calls (i.e. it was not a one-off occurrence).

Despite the employee not receiving any instructions to quickly answer phone calls, nor was she reprimanded, the Court found answering phone calls promptly was part of her performance of her duties. There were not any trip or fall hazards in the employee’s path when moving around the office, and the employee was at the time wearing flat shoes.

The decision

Magistrate Morrison found that despite the assessment of the risk of harm to the employee was not great, on balance, it was not so low to be considered insignificant. Even though the risk of harm was foreseeable and not insignificant, it does not mean precautions are disregarded.

“…the mere fact that the risk of harm was foreseeable and not insignificant says nothing about whether precautions ought reasonably to have been taken.”

Magistrate Morrison was satisfied that a reasonable person in the employer’s position would have taken precautions such as providing the headset to the plaintiff to enable her to answer the phone while away from the front reception desk. Despite limited evidence on the cost of a headset, it was accepted that in the current age “commonplace electronic communication items are inexpensive”.

The Court found the employer’s negligence contributed to the employee’s harm. Magistrate Morrison awarded the employee $119,098, which was agreed by both parties.

Implications for you

This case is a good reminder for employers to ensure there are adequate Work, Health and Safety precautions taken and recorded in policies to address potential risks regardless of how unlikely an accident is to occur. If a relatively inexpensive resource can be provided, it is be best to provide it rather than run the risk of injury. Employers and business bear civil liability for injuries in addition to their statutory obligations of health and safety to employees.