Woolworths have been ordered to pay a former picker $231,211.45 after an appeal judge found the demands Woolworths placed on its distribution centre workers was in breach of safety laws and was the cause of a shoulder industry for a Brisbane worker.
According to reports on ABC News, supermarket worker Berhane Ghebreigziabiher Berhane said he felt forced to skimp on safety to lift 2,100 heavy cartons a day.
Berhane was one of more than 90 workers at Woolworths' regional distribution centre at Larapinta, south of Brisbane, where he worked in a chiller room with a temperature of below zero. During the course of his eight-hour shift, Berhane says his breaks were minimal and included a 30-minute lunch break with an additional 10-minute break.
Court of Appeal Justice Phillip Morrison said boxes of fruit and vegetables that workers lifted weighed between 13 and 16kgs.
"The system of work involved frequent lifting away from the body of weights in excess of recommendations of the Worksafe Victoria Guide to Manual Order Picking," said Justice Morrison.
"Because of Mr Berhane's concern about the system and his job security, it was likely he took shortcuts such as leaning across a pallet rather than walking around it, or carrying more than one item."
ABC News reports that less than a year after starting at the Larapinta distribution centre, Berhane was diagnosed with subacromial bursitis and impingement of the left shoulder, which was found to be caused by constant heavy lifting.
"A negligent work system encouraged employees to work harder and faster — where some were frequently sent home if their rating was less than the others," said Shine Lawyers general manager Peter Gibson.
"It has confirmed a key point of law which clarifies an employer's duty to protect their employees, particularly when repetitive, high-intensity work is involved."
The court also heard how Woolworths contracted an independent company to determine how many boxes could be lifted in a day, and were told how during the day a manager would decide if there was enough work for all the employees and those who were lifting the least cartons would be sent home first.
Justice Morrison told the court that Woolworths trained workers in how to lift boxes safely but it was not enforced on shift.
"The training and induction program was comprehensive, and an adequate response to the risk of musculoskeletal injury, but only in theory," said Justice Morrison.
"The failure to properly implement the system was a breach of duty."
ABC News says that when questioned about its current safety procedures, a spokesperson for Woolworths said it was still reviewing the court's decision.
"The safety of our team members is critically important and we remain committed to providing a safe workplace," the spokesperson said.
"We achieve this through training and a range of policies and processes to improve workplace safety standards. We are continuously looking to how we can improve our performance."