Published: 01 December 2016
Author: Jodie Harris

Hazelwood workers needn’t make themselves injury targets

Redundancy, down-sizing, and WorkCover

Hazelwood power station and mine will close its doors March next year throwing some 500 workers out of a job.

As a WorkCover injury expert who has counselled many workers in similar positions, such as those at Ford Geelong, I know what is going through their minds. And for some among them who have been carrying – and hiding – an injury, they will be doubly fearful.

Fearful about what kind of work they might be able to find after the plant’s closure. And worried also that, before then, whether they should disclose their injury in case they put their redundancy package at risk.

Here is some practical advice for Hazelwood workers and to others in like industries that are facing closure or are having their workforce cut or outsourced to a labor hire company.

How some employers use workplace injury to avoid redundancy

It is a common enough practice, in my experience, for some unscrupulous employers to try to retire workers from their workforce using the state’s workcover legislation as a cover.

Under Victorian workplace injury legislation, injured workers are entitled to medical assistance and weekly income payments while recovering. Should the injury be serious, not everyone will recover sufficiently to resume their previous duties.

Under these circumstances, the legislation requires the employer to find their employee suitable work on lighter duties, if possible. The key phrase here is "if possible". Whether an alternative job is possible or is the call of the boss. If an alternative employment post is not offered, the employer is entitled to stand down the employee, albeit in receipt payments if it is an accepted workplace injury.

The knock on effect here is obvious: a worker who is "retired" early from the workforce before redundancy payments are offered will not have to be paid out. Which is why some organisations that are considering cutting their workforce will suddenly take an interest in the health of their workers. And why so many workers will hide an injury until redundancies have been finalised.

Now I certainly am not accusing Engie of using these tactics. I suspect they are not and at least deserve the benefit of the doubt, like any employer. But, employees owe it to themselves and their families to take care of their own welfare and be alert to any behaviour that suggests they are being targeted in order for an employer to avoid costly payouts.

What you should do in a "down-sizing" organisation

First, a serious injury is a serious injury. If you are hurt or are carrying an injury, the longer you try to hide it, the worse it will get. You should address it and lodge an official WorkCover claim. Full stop.

If your employer suspects you might be carrying an injury and has sent you to a doctor, you are obliged to attend.  And if you are then found to be carrying an injury that makes you unfit to do your job, you should seek legal advice.

You do have a right to be examined by a doctor of your choice and this is enshrined in Victorian law. If this is disputed by a supervisor, speak to your union rep, or at least seek professional legal advice.

If you are working in a firm or organisation that is restructuring or planning to shed jobs, you should get legal advice on how best to protect yourself.

Once you know your rights, you are in a much better position make informed decisions about your future.

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