Workers’ compensation for travel time injuries will need resolving

Following on from BHP Billiton‘s shift to employees over contractors, a media report on 21 February 2010 illustrates changes in shift lengths that one union says may increase fatigue in the workplace.

BHP Billiton says the company has a fatigue management policy and procedure that can allow for the flexibility of the new shift options but the CFMEU is very concerned about the safety impacts of the shift options.  The Mining Industry Road Safety Alliance illustrates a major flaw in the process that is often reflected in issues of shiftwork and fatigue management  in other industries – increased risk in travelling to and from work.

Some Australian States include travel time under workers’ compensation, others do not.  In some States travel incidents are covered by a government transport accident scheme that is funded through car registration.  This makes many of the workers’ compensation statistics incomparable.  The travel time issue will need to be on the agenda for the national harmonisation of the workers’ compensations schemes scheduled for the next few years and promises to be one of the more politically complex issues.

The logic is easily understandable where workers’ compensation applies to work-related issues and how a worker gets to and from work is not work.  But it is clear from a raft of OHS matters that the line between work and non-work is increasingly blurred.

The BHP/CFMEU argument above shows the way workplace structures and operations may contribute to an increased risk of harm on the way home from work.  Good fatigue management policies also aim to have non-fatigued workers arrive at work so there is a major overlap between the requirements of a workplace and the conduct of a worker in their off-duty hours.

The government is going to need to decide whether it is possible to maintain a demarcation in insurance when such a demarcation is increasingly fading in OHS management.

It is likely to come down to dollars and in that context the insurance companies will have the upper hand.  To counter that influence it will be necessary to develop a strong business case that shows it is cheaper and easier to process travel time incidents under workers’ compensation than it is under a fragmented system that increases the administrative burden on business.  For this we need the economic think-tanks to apply the current trend for “whole of cycle” assessments to worker safety and rehabilitation.

Kevin Jones

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