An employer was found liable to pay damages to a worker who suffered a lower back injury when lifting small steel bars off a machine and onto an adjacent bench.

In Issue

Whether the employer was liable for an injury sustained by a worker when the worker was using an automated machine which limited the use of manual handling.

The background

The worker worked on a machine which bent steel reinforcing rods (or bars) into various shapes and sizes. The machine used a largely automated process for arranging and bending the bars. There were two methods for using the machine, the standard method, and the short method.

A worker using the standard method was not required to lift the bent bars out of the machine, as the machine’s arms automatically raised the bars and rolled them towards the operator. The standard method was outlined in the standard operating instructions.

A worker using the short method had to lift the bars off the machine manually. The short bar method involved a combination of bending, lifting and twisting. The employer knew workers used the short method, but the short method was not included in the standard operating instructions.

On the day of the injury, the worker used the short method and performed between 13 and 19 operations of lifting bars onto the table. The weights were between 12kg and 20kg per lift. The worker suffered a lower back injury in the process.

The cases proceeded on the basis that the worker could have used the standard method with shorter bars he was lifting on the day of the injury.

The decision at trial

At trial, the employer argued that the short bar method was safe. District Court Judge Braddock found that the short method was contrary to the standard operating instructions, and that the employer was liable to pay damages due to a failure to take reasonable care for the safety of the worker. The employer was ordered to pay damages of $1,383,300.12.

The employer appealed the liability decision to the Court of Appeal.

The Decision on appeal

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, and upheld the findings of Braddock DCJ, being as follows:

  • The risk of the back injury was reasonably foreseeable.
  • Having established a safe operating process for the machine, the standard method, it was incumbent on the employer to take reasonable care to maintain and enforce the utilisation of that safe method of work.
  • The worker was not trained and instructed to use the standard method at all times, meaning the employer was in breach of the duty owed.

Implications for you

The decision reminds employers that it is not sufficient to establish a safe procedure for a task, and employers must take reasonable steps to ensure that employees adhere to the safe procedure.

Best Bar Pty Ltd v Warn [2019] WASCA 15