Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your question here.
There’s a running joke in the staff room at the primary school I work at, about how if you want to put a poster on the wall you’ll have to call the maintenance team, because they’re the only ones with a ladder license. We’ve always said it’s OHS red tape gone mad.
Well, guess what? I stood on a little plastic table to post up some new times tables posters, and the table slipped, and I tore ligaments in my foot. I’ve had to receive Physio treatment.
I feel like an idiot. I’m embarrassed to own up to what happened, but I know I should file a worker’s compensation application.
My question is, can I be disciplined for not following our established safety procedures?
-Moon Boot on the Other Foot
Dear Moon Boot,
It’s all fun and games until somebody cops a physio bill.
In all seriousness, your situation is anything but extraordinary. You need not be embarrassed, because human beings literally have an inbuilt cognitive bias towards underestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes.
Now you understand that “OHS red tape” is not there to inconvenience you but has been put in place because people have been injured or even killed in the workplace. Incidentally, there is no such thing as a "ladder license" in Victorian OHS legislation, so it sounds like that particular running joke is based on a misunderstanding.
The first question I have is: did you report the injury to your supervisor, and log it on the school’s incident reporting system? Depending on where you are, it might be an online system or a physical, blue-lines-on-white-paper book. If not, you need to make sure you do this as soon as possible. You do not want to have the argument at a later date that your injury was not work-related.
You should also consider submitting a WorkCover claim. The WorkCover scheme is no-fault and your injury will be covered. The physio bills might not be eye-watering now, but you could easily suffer from ongoing complications in the future, and it might be prudent to have a paper trail for down the track.
More to the point, your injury needs to be reported to keep your coworkers safe. Clearly, the established hazard mitigation policy of calling maintenance any time you need to put up a poster isn’t working. You, your HSR and your workplace safety committee need to figure out how you’re going to change things up; engineering controls, new systems, or increased training might all be on the cards.
As to your question about whether you can be disciplined? The short answer is the employer may choose to start a disciplinary process. Although you won’t be disciplined for getting injured, you do acknowledge that you knew you were not following established safety procedures. Under the OHS Act you have the responsibility to take reasonable care for your health and safety in the workplace. If you are pulled into any sort of disciplinary meeting, make sure you bring your union delegate or safety rep.
The big question for me is whether your employer has discharged their duty to provide a safe workplace? Yes, they had a policy. But was this policy actively enforced or was it an “on paper” policy that was mentioned once and then never followed up? You say there was a “running joke” about the policy in the staff room - was school leadership aware? Were they actively cultivating a dismissive attitude towards safety policies? It wouldn’t be the first time a boss turned a blind eye to unsafe practices, whilst studiously documenting compliance policies and then passing on the blame to workers when something goes wrong.
Nobody wants to be a cautionary tale, but your whole workplace has the opportunity to benefit from your unfortunate injury. Once you’re healed up, you can be a vocal advocate of health and safety at work - maybe even get elected and trained up as a Union HSR!
Dom, OHS Lead Organiser, Victorian Trades Hall Council
There’s a running joke in the staff room at the primary school I work at, about how if you want to put a poster on the wall you’ll have to call the maintenance team, because they’re the only ones with a ladder license. We’ve always said it’s OHS red tape gone mad. Well, guess what? I stood on a little plastic table to post up some new times tables posters, and the table slipped, and I tore ligaments in my foot. I’ve had to receive Physio treatment.