Workplace Injuries

Workers Compensation: Why is There Still a Stigma?

Greg Smith
Jun 5, 2018
min read
Tradie with a toolbelt

Making a workers compensation claim may well be within your legal rights, but unfortunately that’s not always the end of the story.

Below, we explore four distinct industries and spoke to workers across these varied areas of employment to discuss their personal experience with workers’ compensation and the stigma on this topic that still seems to be going strong today.

1. Building and construction

The message here for manual labourers seems to ring loud and clear: If you’re hurt,  you represent lost time, and massive insurance premiums.  

Take for example, a forty-something year old heavy machinery operator we talked to who sustained severe foot injuries. From the get-go, it was clear to him that his workplace’s priority was not his health and recovery, rather it was the medical costs and time off he was having. When this man’s injury was sustained, he was made to wait for his boss to pick him up and take him to the doctor, who, upon arrival, immediately said he required hospital emergency care.

After having been treated at the emergency room and then consulting a specialist, he was told his recovery would be 12 months.

Yet still, the workplace requested consultation with another (what was now a fourth) doctor in order for him to get clearance for ‘light duties’. The result? He sat in the office doing “pretty much nothing” until he could return to work. No compensation claim was made for his time off due to the injury being recorded as sick leave.

“They don’t like people having a lot of ‘lost time’ it’s called, or their insurance premiums go up. Also if the company have a lot of lost time injuries on their books, they find it hard to get government work,” he said. Adding insult to (literal) injury is this: construction workers are very reluctant to make claims because their capacity for manual labour is their livelihood, and the work is insecure to begin with.

2. Trade and events  

The issues in this industry seem to be less around stigmas, and more around misinformation and high demand: a very dangerous combination. This thirty-something operations manager in the events industry summed it up:

“The events industry is terrible for this stuff; no one knows what their awards are. I only know one person who is aware of his rights: a business owner in the industry.  He’s the boss, so he knows where he stands," he said.

"Add to this the high degree of worker casualisation, making the lines blurred as far as employer responsibility goes, and you’ve got a pretty confusing industry.

"At what point is someone my employer and responsible for my work cover? If I work for four different people and sustain a fatigue related injury, what happens? Talented workers are highly sought after.

"They won't work for themselves because of the expense of insurance and lack of knowledge around how to set it up.” 

3. Technical services

The following technician in her thirties sustained two injuries with the same employer. The first was an accident (no-fault) on the way to work; the second, a hold-up at her workplace shopfront, three years later.

“The stigma was very different depending on the reason for the workers’ comp,” she said. “It was a clear accident which was not my fault; there was no questioning ‘oh, was she hamming it up or if it was legit. Despite this, I do remember my boss making a comment one or two times that now, because there is a claim their, insurance premiums would go up. There was just the slightest guilt trip by my boss that I was costing them more money.”

Her bosses then went on to make some changes so that workers were now, apparently, ‘self-employed contractors’. Later down the track, when she and a colleague were held up at gunpoint, they were told it was ‘not a WorkCover thing’ because they were ‘not employees’.

However, in answering questions such as: Are your tools supplied by your employer? Do you receive direct payment? Is payment a percentage or per service rate? It turned out that she was in fact, an employee.

“When my bosses found out, they were very upset with me, as they’d been caught out being dodgy, not through any fault of my own. It was nastier that time. A week or so later, I put in my resignation.”

She was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to make matters worse, her bosses appealed the claim.

“They pressured employees to do statutory declarations saying negative stuff about me. There was a lot more backlash of them trying to tear me down in the process of trying to not have to deal with the repercussions of their own actions.”

4. The office

Office politics and pressure from the boss made this following woman’s compensation experience an absolute nightmare, and as a result, triggering a second claim.

The first was due to a spinal injury and severe pain levels, meaning that she could no longer sit at work. She lodged a claim, but felt unsupported by her boss. “I felt like they didn’t believe me”, she said. Pressure from her team leader meant returning to work too early, all whilst suffering acute pain.

Upon her full return, the boss started making weekly allegations against her. The rest of her story is astounding. “This happened for months. I ended up in hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. I lost my vision, was dizzy, weak and vomiting," she added.

Specialists told her the cause was stress and vestibular migraine, so she then lodged a claim for anxiety. The allocated health assessor was friends with her boss. “The harassment from my team leader worsened after I put in my compo claim.  Workmates put in official complaints because they witnessed this harassment and also became victimised," she said.

"It got so bad, my team leader was not allowed to approach me without the union present, but they disregarded this and would come over and yell at me anyways. It became unbearable, so I decided to put my hand up for a redundancy.”

Take-home messages

Regardless of the right you might have to compensation, here are some key considerations:

If you’re the boss:

  • Deal with claims professionally, or risk further employee injury.
  • Make your relationship to workers clear from the beginning.
  • Don’t burden the employee with comments about the cost to you: the focus should be on their health.  
  • Engage independent parties to assist in the process and provide support.

If you’re a worker:

  • Know your rights. Know your award. Ask your boss if you aren’t sure.
  • Keep diary notes.
  • Seek support, for example from colleagues or a union.

Bottom line

Both parties should prioritise the injured person’s health. It seems to be an all-too-common factor that anxiety and stress-related claims can often quickly follow injuries, which could have otherwise have been dealt with effectively from the beginning.

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