Nobody expects to go to work and have their hand ripped off. Certainly it was last thing on Mick Jenkins’ mind when he drove to work at a flourmill in Young, on June 26, 2006…
Injured workers who need a hand give Barry the thumbs down
Yet that day, while operating a roller milling machine, Mick’s right hand got stuck between the rollers of the machine. He lost all four fingers and his thumb.
Doctors operated to remove some of Mick’s toes and attach them to his hand. It failed. Mick’s now left without his right hand and three toes.
The company was prosecuted and fined $220,000.
Unfortunately, Mick’s story is not rare. Unions, which assist workers following catastrophic work injuries, understand this well.
We also know how NSW’s workers compensation system stops stories like Mick’s crossing the line from devastating to irredeemably tragic.
That’s why unions are campaigning hard against proposed cuts to the system.
Under the proposed changes, however, things would have been catastrophic.
By 2010, Mick still required $25,000 in medical expenses per year. Yet if the recommended reforms were already in place, after 30 months he would have been cut off completely.
Mick used to earn $1000 a week but, due to his injury, is unlikely to make that much again. It’s a bit hard to operate a machine when you’re missing a hand, after all.
And Mick’s case only scratches the surface. There are dozens of ways the proposed reforms will make things much tougher for injured workers.
The justification offered for hammering the lives of already injured workers is that there is a “black hole” in the WorkCover scheme and it is on the verge of collapse.
The extent of the problem has been massively overstated. The system is not on its knees. It could, however, use a tune-up to ensure long-term viability.
So how should we go about it?
Well, in a case like Mick’s, employer neglect led to a cost being incurred. Most of that burden – in terms of pain and suffering – has to be borne by the victim.
That leaves the financial cost. And yet if we want a first-world worker’s compensation system, which prevents people from simply being thrown on society’s scrapheap, we have to pay for it. I don’t think anyone would begrudge an injured worker a single cent, either.
But, if we do need to make cuts, where should we make them?
The answer from big business is to cut payments to injured workers.
Yet there are multiple stakeholders in the workers compensation system aside from injured workers – employers, doctors, lawyers, and insurance companies.
Employers should accept their share of responsibility in the form of premiums. In recent years, NSW’s rate of workplace injury has been between 27 per cent and 42 per cent worse than Victoria’s. Improving workplace safety saves businesses money, not the other way round.
Meanwhile, medical costs have blown out. There’s fat to be cut there.
What we do know is that the proposed changes would dramatically reduce their costs. We also know that they are making super profits. I think Barry O’Farrell should release this information, so we can all collectively look at where savings can be made, without kicking injured workers.
Because as it stands, the proposed changes are not fair. A poll conducted last week showed only 23 per cent of voters support the changes.
Paul Howes is the national secretary of the AWU