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Workers Rehabilitation And Compensation Amendment Bill 2019

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Tags: Workers Rights, Paramedics

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, this bill provides a unique exemption for police officers from the step-downs in weekly workers' compensation payments that are prescribed in section 9(1)(b), the period for which benefits are payable.

We start by acknowledging the spirit of this bill and we commend the Government's concern to support police who have been injured because of the very real dangers that they actively confront for all of us in the work they do on a daily basis. Police officers in Tasmania, as elsewhere, enter a profession knowing that part of the work they do will inevitably mean they have to go into situations that are highly dangerous and, sadly, life-threatening in certain situations, and they do this for all of us. We commend them for that and support the Government's intention to recognise that for people, through no fault of their own, who have been placed in life-threatening situations and have suffered injury as a result, should not have their salary penalised because they are unable to continue to work for a period of time.

We have concerns, however, about who this bill does not speak for. I have heard from paramedics and other early responders, and have spoken to doctors and nurses who work in emergency departments about the injuries and serious mental health, such as post-traumatic stress injury, they have suffered as a consequence of the work they do where they are also professionally committed to put themselves in situations which are dangerous. Currently in our emergency departments in hospitals in Tasmania it is increasingly dangerous, where there is real stress and people who are either suffering the effects of drugs or who are angry, violent or frustrated let their violence and anger out physically onto staff in those situations.

I understand from the minister that the Government's view is that there is a distinction between the police and everybody else who works in those sorts of jobs in Tasmania on the basis that the police are required to go into situations that expose them to potential or real violence. I do not see that to be a real distinction because in reality paramedics, volunteer ambulance workers, emergency department staff, child protection workers and family violence workers are also professionals who willingly go into dangerous situations, not necessarily understanding that the result of that is going to be violence, but they expose themselves because of their professional commitment to all of us to provide service to highly dangerous situations where injuries do occur.

Although the Government is making a case for a difference, I do not see it to be a meaningful difference. I actually think it is a problem because it is picking out a group of people who are in this situation of being professionals who work on our behalf and expose themselves knowingly to violence and aggression through the work they have committed themselves and signed up to doing. I do not think it is helpful for us as a community to pick one group out - in this case, police officers - and essentially elevate them and their experiences above other people, for example, a paramedic who is attending an event and the police are not there.

I have experienced this myself at a festival in southern Tasmania where on the side there was a family dispute that was going on. A person was highly charged on methamphetamines and had been fighting, attacking and causing a lot of damage to the public. The first person who was there was the paramedic. There were no police available to go in but that person went in to calm the person down and successfully did so. I just had so much respect for their ability to be able to go into a highly dangerous situation and use their skills and resources to defuse the situation and give that person some sort of medical treatment and effectively make other people safe.

I do not think it is a good space for us to be in where we start to pick groups out - and essentially what we are talking about is 100 per cent of their salary without any step-down provisions - without also considering who else and under what circumstances other categories of public service workers should also be included.

I had a few other questions about the intention of the Government with this amendment bill because I am not convinced it is doing what it is intended. It might be that I have not properly understood some underlying parts of the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill but in the minister's second reading speech he says its intention is to ensure that police officers who are incapacitated by an operational related injury will continue to receive 100 per cent of their wage.

This bill will create not just a difference between police officers and other first responders in the public service, but it also creates a different category within police in relation to workplace incidents that result in injury. I believe the intention is to try to single out an operational-related injury and situations where a police officer will knowingly go into a violent situation and then receive an injury. To me this raised a plethora of questions. How would it be determined? I will give an example that just came to my mind. A police officer is called to respond to a speeding car and ends up in some sort of car chase, not that I am suggesting that that is something that is actively done in Tasmania, I know that is not, but a situation where through pursuing a potential offender the police have a car crash and a person suffers an injury. Would that injury and access to full salary be distinguished from a situation where a police officer was sitting parked in a car park and somebody backed into the police car and they got whiplash? Is that sort of injury going to be different to an injury where somebody walks into a house where there is a domestic violence dispute and they get shot, where they are clearly knowingly going into a dangerous situation? How are we going to differentiate what an injury is?

I am also wondering what we mean by an 'injury'. Recently the post-traumatic stress disorder amendments went through, very important legislation. I spoke quite strongly for us to consider looking at our wording regarding post-traumatic stress disorder because globally it is now being considered as an injury - post-traumatic stress injury. Given that section 69B is proposed to be amended so that it specifically talks about the result of which the injury was suffered, I am seeking some clarification on whether that could be interpreted to mean post-traumatic stress injury.

As we know about PTSI, there is a very long temporal chain from an incident, an event and a person finally coming to a diagnosis of a post-traumatic stress injury and at that point needing to take time off work. It could be a succession of events that have happened and then PTSI would happen for a person some years, months or days later. It depends on the person and the situation. It is clearly complex.

What I am concerned about in the way this is drafted is that we have a situation where, if we are talking about some police being able to access full salary and others not, what sort of hoops would people have to jump through in order to be able to prove that it was a so-called operational circumstance that is unique to the policing role, that it is 'an operational related injury'?

The minister said:

For example, if a police officer is injured apprehending an offender, they are covered as the circumstances in which the injury was suffered were as a result of them being a police officer, the policing role being what required them to apprehend the offender.

The minister has used the words 'apprehend the offender'. Is that the only time this would be enacted, this particular amendment clause? How would 'apprehend' be interpreted? It is all starting to sound very legal. Some clarification around that would be useful.

We are also concerned about what the bill does not do, which would be important. One of the problems for people seeking to access workplace compensation is the difficult and complex dispute process which can sometimes leave vulnerable public servants, including police, without any payments if the employer disputes their claim. Under the act, the government can choose to dispute the claim within the 84-day time frame or as the result of an independent medical assessment. The onus is then on the injured employee to take the matter to the tribunal.

Arbitrated hearings of the tribunal involve legal representation, the cross-examination of witnesses, presentation of medical specialists, testimony and all of that is very legal. It requires professional expertise and support. The government is able to engage specialist lawyers to represent the government's interest in the tribunal. However, the injured worker is left to foot the bill for the legal representation, much of which most people cannot afford and often valid claims have been abandoned. We have certainly heard of cases where people feel that they are unable to prosecute their interests properly because it is a very onerous process.

I would like to hear from the minister what the Government is intending to do to increase justice for those workers? At the moment, Worker Assist has two lawyers, with most of their time being taken up providing phone assistance. There is really no actual time available to stretch their work to include court appearances and the preparation of cases for individual people at the level of detail that is required, especially given that some cases are fairly complex and hard to argue, essentially.

If you think of a person with complex mental health injuries, including post-traumatic stress injury, but not only that, who is making a claim that they suffered that injury in the course of the work that they were doing, it is very difficult for that person to be able to bring to bear the emotional resources, as well as the financial ones to organize the case properly. They should not be left unsupported to mount a legal case. I would like to hear the minister's comments about what support would be increased, given that there is a concern, obviously, for police officers, but in order to go the full mile, I suppose, people need to be assisted properly to be able to make the claims if there is a dispute.

With respect to a full review, I have not seen the final wording from the Labor Party on what they have foreshadowed in an amendment, but I can say that we do support the Government's intention to support police who have been injured. We do not think it is fair or reasonable to focus only on police. It sends a signal that other workers, especially those who commit to putting themselves, actively and professionally, in situations where violence may be experienced, such as paramedics, doctors and nurses, child support workers and family violence workers, that those people are not as important. We do not accept that they are not as intrinsically at risk.

We support the legislation but not the narrow focus on the police but I can say that we do support this bill. We support an extension towards other workers, and we support a review of how that should be conducted because we accept there may be valid arguments for different categories of workers and different types of work. It is a complex legal, financial and ethical issue. It should have a proper review and it is past time for that to happen in Tasmania. I have heard stories of people who have been trying to prosecute cases and whose pay has been stepped-down over years and it is very difficult for them. As a state, we do need to look at this for our public service workers, all of whom are working on our behalf.