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Published: 30 January 2019
Author: Peter Claven
The current heat wave gripping much of Victoria highlights one of the dangers of living where we do. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. At least two in every three Australians will develop skin cancer before the age of 70. Around 2,000 Australians die each year from skin cancer, with more than 2,000 people treated daily (betterhealth.vic.gov.au). Heat stroke is also a significant risk in extreme weather.
The Cancer Council reports that in Australia:
What about skin cancers and heat stroke at work? Not many people know that WorkCover claims can be made for these types of injuries to cover medical expenses, time off work and in some cases lump sum payments.
There is a key difference between injuries, such as a broken arm or lower back injury on the one hand, and skin cancer and heat stroke claims on the other.
For most injuries (such as a back injury), the law only requires that the injury arise “out of or in the course of employment”. However, for the conditions mentioned above, the law requires that the workers' employment was a “significant contributing factor”. What this means is that it is not enough to show that work has made some contribution to the injury, it must be a significant contribution.
Sometimes this distinction will require expert medical evidence, particularly in relation to skin cancers. Consideration would need to be given to any history the worker may have in terms of sun exposure outside of the employment, or other risk factors such as smoking.
Employers do have a duty to look after their workers and provide a safe working environment. If you are working in a job that requires you to be outdoors frequently, you should have access to sunscreen, appropriate headwear, sunglasses and clothing as well as having appropriate policies in place to protect workers as best as they can.
We have acted for workers in cases where they developed skin cancers at work and assisted them with lodging a claim and navigating the WorkCover system.
Your employer should be taking steps to reduce the chance of heat stroke by providing water, providing shade where possible, appropriate clothing and having policies in place for extreme weather. Scheduling outdoor tasks for certain times of the day where temperatures are lower is also a great idea.
Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency that can lead to organ damage. It occurs when the body cannot sufficiently cool itself. If you are a worker that is often outdoors in high temperatures, look for the following signs of heat stroke: headache, dizziness, disorientation, agitation, or confusion, sluggishness or fatigue, seizure, hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, a high body temperature, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat or hallucinations.
Workers that are spending long periods in the sun or in extreme temperatures, don’t have access to water or are working in very physically taxing jobs are those most at risk.
Proving that heat stroke is work-related is more straightforward than proving a skin cancer is work-related, as the injury is much more immediate and the factors leading to the injury are obvious.
Whether you are entitled to a common law lump sum (as opposed to no-fault WorkCover benefits such as weekly payments and medical and like expenses) will depend on whether your employer acted reasonably in the circumstances and whether they have taken reasonable steps to prevent injury at work.
As an example, if you can prove that a skin cancer is work-related and the employer never provided any sun protection or had any policies in place to try and prevent UV exposure, you may well be successful in bringing a common law action.
Again, heat stroke cases will be more straightforward than a skin cancer claim. The injury will likely only occur over a limited period of time and it is likely to be obvious whether the injury was work-related. Whether the employer is at fault will depend on the factors mentioned above.
If you are unsure whether you are entitled to WorkCover benefits, be sure to contact a lawyer.
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