By Kerry Vernon
Brisbane— The Queensland Labor government is considering restricting access by workers to common law claims for negligence against employers. In a letter to unions, minister for employment and training Wendy Edmond outlined the government's options for reducing debts facing the Workers Compensation Board.
Although other changes have been proposed, including adjusting the statutory scheme, increasing premium income and improving workplace health and safety, the emphasis is on reducing compensation payments.
The Workers Compensation Board has an unfunded debt of $120 million. This is an estimate of what it will need in the future to meet claims for injuries that have occurred to date.
ACTU Queensland general secretary John Thompson said unions did not believe there was a need to limit common law claims and would protect existing benefits. Other options exist such as increasing the premiums paid by employers, which are currently the lowest in Australia.
Other amendments to the Workers Compensation Act last November restricted access for some workers to compensation if work contributed to, but was not the sole significant factor in "congenital, pre-existing or age related degenerative conditions".
The amendments also mean that workers suffering from stress may also be prevented from getting compensation in the future. Stress caused by disciplinary procedures or loss of promotion are no longer compensatable, and this may also prevent someone getting compensation who is suffering stress from harassment by an employer.
Injuries caused by "serious and wilful misconduct" are also no longer compensatable. Thus an injured worker who was not wearing protective gear because it is too uncomfortable to work in will not receive compensation.
Changes to the merit bonus scheme give incentives to employers to reduce the number of claims. According to the Workers Health Action Group (WHAG), this has resulted in employers discouraging workers from making claims and pressuring them to take sick days and holidays when injured at work.
"The responsibility for the increasing number of common law actions", according to WHAG, "must rest with the failure of employers to meet their duty of care to their employees and provide a safe workplace. Common law actions against an employer are only successful where it is proven that the employer is at fault and negligent. The increased costs on the government insurance scheme have been caused by the negligence of employers."
Queensland to reduce workers' compensation
By Kerry Vernon