Graeme Brown is an injured worker.
You could go as far as to say he’s a capital-I, capital-W, Injured Worker. Sometimes he feels like it has become part of who he is. He’s a father, a die-hard Richmond supporter, a die-hard CFMEU member, and an Injured Worker.
But (on good days) he’s proud of it, and he’s encouraging other injured workers to come together to fix the system that has treated them so poorly. That’s why he and other activists established the Injured Workers’ Support Network: to campaign for changes to the WorkCover system.
“The mental abuse in the system pushes people away, stops them from making claims and from continuing claims when they have every right to.
Injured Workers Day: a timely reminder
June 1st is International Injured Workers’ Day. It’s an initiative that started a few years back in Canada, and has since been adopted in countries all over the world. This year, Victorian unions were set to hold a public demonstration to bring attention to how the WorkCover system treats injured workers.
Plans changed due to the snap lockdown, and as a last-minute pivot, the Support Network was able to use some of its connections to set up Zoom meetings with decision makers.
Graeme used the opportunity to tell his story.
Graeme suffered a serious blood infection, but insurers didn’t accept it
“I was the shop steward on a site and they gave me this new pair of boots to wear, which I started having a reaction to. After a while, my ankle started to really hurt but I kept pushing through. Then it swelled up like a balloon. Pretty soon it was clear that it wasn’t a joint or skin problem, but something more internal. I was eventually diagnosed with septicemia.”
Septicemia is an extremely serious blood infection, more commonly referred to simply as blood poisoning.
“Anyway, I was in hospital for about seven months, over which time I had four operations. When I came out I obviously couldn’t go back to work because my ankle was severely injured. Over time I’ve had to have another five operations. It wasn’t until some time later that I started thinking that I should be entitled to workers’ compensation. So I submitted a claim.
Allianz, the insurance agent in his case, fought back against the claim. It took three and a half years of legal battles in the Magistrate’s Court, and over $10,000 in legal fees, just to have his claim referred to a medical panel. The push was eventually successful.
Once it was a matter for doctors and not pennypinchers, Graeme’s claim was accepted almost immediately.
“It took me three and half years to get onto WorkCover, but as soon as I did they tried to cut me off. By that point I’d already passed 130 weeks from the date of my initial injury, which is the point they can have you cut off.”
It has now been 10 years since he has been able to work. The added strain on his lower back from not being able to put weight on his left foot has resulted in a secondary injury.
Every step of the way, Graeme has had to battle with insurance companies who are trying to have his payments stopped.
Insurers are notorious for using so-called “Independent Medical Examiners” to dispute the evidence of medical panels and workers' own doctors. Insurers are free to choose which IME a worker is sent to, and they know which ones are more likely to give them the outcome they want. It’s a shockingly-common practice known as “doctor shopping”.
“They sent me to Dr Smith* and he immediately started attacking me and my role on the building site. He didn’t understand what a shop steward was and questioned what I was even doing there. Questioned my rate of pay, questioned everything about me. Didn’t even look at my foot! He tried to tell me that I had arthritis, even though the doctors had already diagnosed me with sepsis. His recommendation was that I should go back to work.
The harassment and skepticism directed at him took a serious toll.
“After that, my stress and anxiety levels spiked. I went to see a psychiatrist who could clearly see that I was suffering as a result of my treatment by the insurance agency and especially the IME. He really backed me, which was able to stop the process of them terminating my claim. They didn’t get to do it, in the end.”
But the struggle is ongoing for Graeme and many injured workers with what are dubbed “complex” claims. The insurance company will fight tooth and nail, every step of the way.
“I’ve also had the insurance company call my GP and threaten him in order to change my certificate of capacity to say I can go back to work.”
General Practitioners, unlike IMEs, aren’t chosen by the insurer. You can go to whichever GP you choose, and they ultimately sign the document saying you are either fit or unfit to work.
“After that, it wasn’t hard to convey to my doctor the extent of the bullying and harassment they were subjecting me to.”
Review Offers Chance for Change
But years of campaigning by injured workers and their allies is starting to yield fruit.
The Victorian Government is conducting a review into the administration of complex claims. The review, conducted by Peter Rozen QC, asked respondents to provide submissions on the question of what role, if any, insurance agencies should play in the WorkCover system.
The results of the report, with recommendations, are due any day now.
If you are an injured worker yourself, you can contact the Injured Workers Support Network to get involved with campaigns like this one. Only together can we fix this broken system.
If you need assistance with your claim (and you’re a union member) you can contact UnionAssist.
Graeme Brown is an injured worker. You could go as far as to say he’s a capital-I, capital-W, Injured Worker. Sometimes he feels like it has become part of who he is. He’s a father, a die-hard Richmond supporter, a die-hard CFMEU member, and an Injured Worker.