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Supreme Court defines “manual handling”

“Manual handling”, as defined under the Occupational Health and Safety (Manual Handling) Regulations 1999 (Vic) ought to be construed broadly, the Victorian Supreme Court has ruled.

In Linda Hudspeth v Scholastic Cleaning and Consultancy Services Pty Ltd & Ors[2012] VSC 562, Ms Hudspeth suffered a musculoskeletal injury while performing mopping tasks during the course of her employment. Ms Hudspeth had proceeded to a urinal so that she could wash the mop under a tap, but slipped while stepping up to the urinal.

Ms Hudspeth alleged that her employer, Scholastic Cleaning, had breached its statutory duties under regs 12, 13, 14 and 15 of the Safety (Manual Handling) Regulations.

Scholastic Cleaning argued that the specific task Ms Hudspeth was performing when she sustained her injury did not constitute manual handling as defined in the Regulations. Scholastic contended that while the activity of mopping the floor fell within the definition of manual handling, the specific task of stepping up to the urinal was not part of mopping, and therefore did not involve manual handling.

Justice Dixon explained that “manual handling” involved “any activity requiring the use of force exerted by a person to lift, push, pull, carry or otherwise move, hold or restrain any object”. The central issue here was the meaning of “activity”, Dixon J pointed out.

“‘Activity’, in its common usage, means the state of action; doing, or can refer to an exercise of energy or force; an active movement or operation”, Dixon J stated.

Justice Dixon rejected Scholastic Cleaning’s argument and held that the activity in question here was of mopping a floor. He stated that the distinction drawn between the task of manipulating the mop and washing the mop head was artificial. Washing out the mop was an essential part of the activity of mopping, and stepping up to the tap to wash the mop was part of the activity of mopping. His Honour stressed:

“It is inappropriate to break up the activity into constituent parts and content that part of the task involves manual handling and part of it does not.”

The court referred to the objectives of the Regulations, which is to reduce the number and severity of musculoskeletal disorders associated with tasks involving manual handling. Justice Dixon accordingly ruled:

“The mechanism for sustaining a musculo-skeletal disorder is not confined by the Regulations, which refer to an injury, illness or disease that arises in whole or in part from manual handling in the workplace. Thus, in my view, it matters not that the actual mechanism, by which injury was sustained during the course of manual handling of a manual handling activity, was a slip. This is evident from the language of regulations.”

Linda Hudspeth v Scholastic Cleaning and Consultancy Services Pty Ltd & Ors [2012] VSC 562

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