Heavy duties result in disability discrimination

Cases

Heavy duties result in disability discrimination

Employers should ensure that employees on "light duties" are not required to perform duties which are "heavy" in nature, as this may constitute disability discrimination as well as a risk to the employee’s health and safety.

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Employers should ensure that employees on "light duties" are not required to perform duties which are "heavy" in nature, as this may constitute disability discrimination as well as a risk to the employee’s health and safety. Employers are under an obligation to make sure that work conditions that are adverse to an injured employee are rectified.

The complainant, who was on light duties due to a work-related back injury, was found to have been discriminated against on the ground of disability when he was directed by his manager to carry heavy objects. He was awarded $10,000 damages by the New South Wales Equal Opportunity Tribunal (Spiteri v Manly Pacific International Hotel Pty Limited, trading as Manly Pacific Parkroyal; No 27 of 1994).

The complainant was employed in a large hotel. As a result of his back injury, he was employed on light duties in the staff canteen. Three days later, however, the complainant’s manager told him that he had to help in the restaurant. This involved the complainant performing duties which were outside his "light duties", for example carrying heavy stacks of plates and containers of cutlery into the restaurant. The complainant commented on numerous occasions about the pain in his back resulting from performing the "heavier" duties. The Human Resources Manager told the complainant’s manager not to use the complainant to lift heavy objects. This direction was ignored by the manager.

Discrimination found

The duties that the manager required the complainant to perform were described by the Equal Opportunity Tribunal as "heavy" duties which threatened the complainant’s health and safety. The manager’s conduct adversely affected the terms and conditions of the complainant’s employment, and he was thereby discriminated against as a result.

Who was liable for the discriminatory conduct?

The employer attempted to argue that it had not authorised the manager to direct the complainant to lift heavy loads and therefore it could not be held liable for the discrimination.

The Tribunal rejected this argument, stating that it was not sufficient for the Human Resources Manager to simply give directions to the complainant’s manager that he not carry out heavy duties without taking steps to ensure that the complainant’s adverse working conditions were rectified. Had the HR Manager obtained first hand knowledge of these conditions, measures could have been taken to ensure, for example, that other staff were available to assist the complainant when he needed assistance.

The damages were awarded on the basis that the complainant suffered considerable physical pain as a consequence of being required to perform heavy duties in the restaurant. He was also intimidated and pressured by the manager and this also affected his psychological well-being, ability to sleep and aggravated the depression resulting from the injury.

 
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