Basic safety failure results in Coles worker’s debilitating injury
In Rhodin v Coles Supermarkets Australia Pty Ltd (2019), Coles was found liable for a workers’ compensation claim that will cost about $300,000.
All because two store managers sat on their hands when a worker informed them about a safety issue.
One that could have very easily been fixed.
When a worker at a Coles store in the ACT noticed ice leaking onto the seafood cool room floor – creating a slip hazard – she quickly reported it to both the branch’s 2IC and main manager.
The worker also wrote a report of the incident in the store’s communication book, which is used to communicate between employees and higher management.
Three days later, at the start of the worker’s shift, she entered the cool room again and slipped on ice on the floor and crashed into a metal trolley, injuring her left arm and body.
The worker filed a workers’ compensation claim which Coles’ insurer accepted.
While the insurer paid for the workers’ medical treatment costs, Coles objected, denying any liability for the incident and blaming the worker instead.
It argued that in the worker’s statement of claim she did not:
- identify how she had reported the safety issue;
- specify what she wrote in the communications book, the date and the book’s location; and
- disclose the connection between the ice she reported and ice she slipped on.
Coles further argued that the worker had not sustained the injuries she alleged and did not require the medical treatment outlined in her claim, which up until the court hearing cost nearly $150,000.
Future medical treatment was predicted to cost more than $140,000.
If it was found that the worker had sustained the injuries she claimed, as an alternative, Coles said that the injuries were caused by her own negligence, in that she:
- failed to report, or to properly report, the ice on the floor of the cool room;
- failed to take any action to remove the ice, despite it being within her capability and level of experience to do so;
- failed to take reasonable care for her own safety, despite knowing that ice had recently been found on the floor of the cool room; and
- failed to take proper precautions for her own safety, despite knowing that ice had recently been found on the floor of the cool room.
However, ACT Supreme Court Justice Berna Collier said this did not absolve Coles of its duty to maintain a safe system of work.
The worker provided evidence that in the cool room there were tubs containing ice which had the plugs removed, allowing ice and water to leak onto the floor.
“I am satisfied that, in those circumstances, there was the potential for ice to form on the floor of the room, or that if ice did leak on to the floor from tubs in the cool room it would not melt or would not melt quickly. I am further satisfied that if there was ice on the floor, it would be slippery,” Justice Collier said.
“[I]t was incumbent on [the employer] to not only have a system in place to prevent liquid (including frozen liquid in the form of ice) leaking on to the floor, but also to take steps to remove any ice which formed on the floor when such ice had been reported.
“In the absence of signage on the morning of [the accident] to indicate an ongoing problem, there was no reason for [the worker] to believe anything other than that the workplace was safe, that the ice had been removed from the cool room floor, and further that the cause of the ice had been addressed.
“[I]t was reasonable that [the worker] would have had the belief that, if there continued to be a risk that ice was on the cool room floor, [the employer] would have put out warning signs to that effect,” she said.
Justice Collier also noted that Coles’ insurer accepting the worker’s workers’ compensation claim was evidence of an admission by the employer that the worker had suffered a work-related injury which disabled her.
She found that the worker substantiated her claim and ordered that her ongoing treatment expenses and ongoing payments of compensation be paid after the parties made submissions on the calculation of her damages.
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