We’re all familiar with the risk of sustaining a back injury from lifting a heavy object the wrong way. But what does the law say about suffering an injury due to lifting at work?

Can I refuse to lift heavy objects at work?

The short answer is yes. The law doesn’t prohibit lifting heavy objects in the workplace, but it does require that your workplace is safe. If it would be unsafe to lift a heavy object, a worker can refuse to do it.

What is the maximum weight you can lift at work?

The law doesn’t set a maximum weight for safe lifting at work.

Lifting any weight involves risk, and there is no absolutely safe way to lift. In fact, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland reports that it is just as important, if not more, that employers are assisting and training their workers to consider and assess the risks involved with lifting any weight as well as proving them with training on lifting techniques to improve health and safety outcomes for lifting objects at work.

What are the risks of lifting at work?

The primary risk associated with lifting in the workplace is an injury to the musculoskeletal system.

Musculoskeletal injury

As explained by HealthDirect, the musculoskeletal system consists of:

- The skeleton (bones)

- Joints

- Ligaments

- Muscles, and

- Tendons

Injury to any of these elements of the musculoskeletal system can cause acute (short term) or chronic (long term) pain, or both.

How do musculoskeletal injuries occur?

Most people would be familiar with the risk of an immediate, painful and debilitating strain of a back muscle from lifting a heavy object. You’ve probably also heard about the degeneration, over time, of the intervertebral supports in the spine, leading to problems such as a ‘slipped’ or herniated disc.

Both of these are musculoskeletal injuries or conditions. They are examples of the two types of medical problems you can suffer as a result of manual handling (lifting, pushing or pulling) at work being:

- Conditions that develop slowly over time, potentially from performing a seemingly harmless task but doing it frequently or for a long period; or

- Injuries that occur suddenly, such as when a heavy object has to be handled awkwardly, or shifts position during a lift.

Unfortunately, there are many other musculoskeletal system conditions that can be caused by lifting injuries at work, including ligament or tendon sprains, injuries to joints like the hip, soft tissue injuries and nerve damage.

How common are lifting injuries at work?

A 2019 report by SafeWork Australia details that just under 7 million people in Australia suffered musculoskeletal disorders in 2014-2015. It also reports that serious work injury compensation claims for musculoskeletal disorders are responsible for the majority of serious workers’ compensation claims.

The Australian Institute for Health and Safety names ‘lifting, carrying or putting down objects’ as one of the top 3 causes of musculoskeletal injuries, and reports that over 40,000 musculoskeletal injury workers compensation claims were lodged in 2014-2015.

What can I do if I’ve suffered a musculoskeletal injury at work?

First of all, take appropriate care of your health and wellbeing. See a medical professional and ensure you tell them that the injury occurred at work. Keep a record of any expenses you incur, including doctor’s or specialist’s fees, medication, and rehabilitation services.

Second, you can seek advice about your rights relating to your manual handling work injury. An experienced compensation lawyer can explain the law and how it applies to your situation. They may be able to help you recover compensation for the costs you’ve had to pay and pain and suffering you have experienced.

When might I have a claim for workplace injury compensation?

Under the Queensland Work Health and Safety Act 2011, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and workplaces. If they fail to fulfil that requirement, you may have a claim for any injury you suffer as a result.

It’s important to remember that workers also have duties under the legislation. Workers and workplaces should work together to try and eliminate the risks that are involved with lifting objects. But if removing the risk altogether is not possible, then workplaces must be taking steps to manage those risks. In Queensland, there is a Code of Practice for Hazardous Manual Tasks that employers and workplaces should refer to when developing their risk management procedures.

The Queensland Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 requires workplaces to consider all matters that could contribute to musculoskeletal injury, including:

- Posture and movement relating to any particular task

- Duration and frequency of the task

- Workplace conditions – design, layout, environment, system of work

- The nature and number of persons, animals or things involved (yes, hazardous lifting at work can occur when workers are required to lift anything, including animals!)

After considering these matters, the workplace should implement proper processes, including:

- Identifying hazardous manual tasks

- Assessing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders

- Implementing risk controls and

- Reviewing the effectiveness of those control measures

WorkCover claim

To make a WorkCover claim you will need to show that your injury was suffered at work or as a result of your employment. If you have been required to lift an object in the workplace, or as part of your work duties, and have suffered injury as a result, you may be able to claim.

Specialist advice from an experienced compensation lawyer will help to ensure your claim is right the first time and progresses smoothly, so you can get the compensation you need to deal with your injury or condition.

Court claim

You may also, or instead, be able to make a claim through the courts, known as a ‘common law’ claim, if your employer has been negligent or otherwise failed in their responsibilities for your health and safety.

To show your employer had been negligent, you would need to prove that:

- Your employer had a duty or responsibility to take care for your health and safety – the law usually says that your employer does have this responsibility;

- They failed to take sufficient care of you – for example, by not assessing the risks involved with having you lift an object properly, or requiring you to lift something without suitable equipment; and

- The injury you have suffered was caused by that failure – this can be proven with medical evidence.

What compensation can I expect to receive if my claim is successful?

You will need to provide evidence to substantiate the injury and loss you have suffered. This is why it’s important to tell your treating medical professionals that the injury occurred at work, so proper information can be detailed in your files and records kept so they’ll be available when you need them for your claim.

The amount of compensation you receive will depend on many factors including the seriousness of your injury, whether you will recover fully or continue to suffer impacts from your injury into the future, your personal circumstances, and how much the injury affects your ability to work.

You are potentially able to receive compensation for:

- Any medical expenses, such as the costs of seeing your doctor and any specialist, fees for rehabilitation services and payments you make for any medical aids you need;

- Any wages or earnings you lose from being unable to work, either in the short term or because you must change to a less physical job in the future;

- Pain and suffering you experience.

If you think you may wish to seek compensation, it is important to seek advice from an experienced compensation lawyer. There are strict time limits for personal injury claims, and they can be short. Additionally, you may be eligible to start receiving support from WorkCover Queensland for your treatment costs, even before your claim is fully resolved. If you’ve suffered a serious work injury, our lawyers would be happy to discuss your situation and advise you of the best way forward.

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