A claim for workers’ compensation by a worker whose position involved turning his head from one computer screen to another, making notes and dealing with phone calls, has been rejected by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Background

Mr Hook was employed by the Department of Human Services (“DHS”) in a Child Support Smart Centre in Brisbane and had been employed since 9 February 2009.

In the course of his work he had to look at more than one computer screen which involved turning his head from one computer screen to another, making notes and dealing with phone calls. On 13 August 2018 he said that he was completing a phone call with a customer and turned his head to the left in order to make notes on a notepad on his desk. He felt pain in his upper arm and neck after turning his head. He was seen by the first-aid officer and taken off manning phones for a couple of hours and then went home on sick leave. On 28 August 2018 he submitted a claim for workers’ compensation for an “injured neck/shoulder and left arm”.

 

The Disputed Issue

 
The issue in dispute was whether he entitled to federal workers’ compensation (Comcare) under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth).
 
 Section 14(1) of the Act provides that Comcare “is liable to pay compensation in accordance with this Act in respect of an injury suffered… if the injury results in death, incapacity for work, or impairment.”
 
The questions to be decided were:
  1. What was the proper diagnosis of the condition?
  2. Had the worker suffered an injury/disease, or aggravation of an injury/disease?
  3. If so, was that contributed to (to a significant degree) by his employment?

Medical Evidence

 
An MRI showed spondylotic changes in the upper spine with mild disc bulge and some impingement of a nerve.
 
An occupational physician expressed the opinion that:
  1. The work tasks did not cause the underlying condition and that the neck and left arm pain was due to an aggravation of the pre-existing condition.
  2. The simple act of turning the head to the left would not ordinarily be expected to lead to the worker’s spine pain without a degree of the pre-existing condition.
  3. Turning the head as the worker described would not be expected to lead to an injury such as a disc extrusion.
 
An orthopaedic surgeon expressed the opinion that the turning of the head at work caused an exacerbation of symptoms in the pre-existing condition and that the only connection with employment was that the worker happened to be at work at the time.
 
A general practitioner, who saw the worker immediately after the incident on 13 August 2018 agreed there was a pre-existing condition but that he could not exclude the possibility that the symptoms experienced were due to an acute event occurring at work when he turned his neck.
 

The Decision

 
The Tribunal Member accepted the evidence of the orthopaedic surgeon that the condition arose as a result of age-related changes and not the turning of the head, and concluded that:

“In the present case the [worker] was in the unfortunate position of having degenerative changes caused by age which over a period of time resulted in a disc bulge/prolapse. That was not employment related. It was present prior to the event at work on 13 August 2018. The symptoms occurred at work when the [worker] turned his head in a normal movement but the extent of work-related involvement was purely temporal. He did not suffer an injury. He suffered from an age-related disease. The disease was not contributed to, to a significant degree, by his employment.”

The worker’s condition was age-related and the occurrence of symptoms at work when turning his head was purely coincidental with work and was not contributed to by his work.
 
The worker’s claim was rejected.
 

Issues for Employers

 
Although the case* was decided under the federal Comcare scheme there may have been a similar outcome in the Qld workers’ compensation system.
 
We are often contacted by employers for assistance with preparing responses to WorkCover about workers’ compensation claims and if you have any queries about a workers’ compensation matter, please contact our experienced employment lawyers.

 

Hook and Comcare (Compensation) [2020] AATA 1792 (17 June 2020)