National

Ergonomic desk change leads to lengthy public service compensation case

Australia's tax collection agency has been involved in a lengthy compensation battle after an employee's desk and chair heights were changed without her knowledge.

Hot-desking is becoming increasingly popular in private and public sector offices.
Hot-desking is becoming increasingly popular in private and public sector offices. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The ergonomic stuff-up happened even though the woman had a sign on her work station saying "do not adjust or sit at this desk".

The initial compensation paid and ensuing 18-month legal tussle demonstrates the potential liabilities of hot desking, where multiple workers use the same workstation at different times.

Hot desking is popular in private and public sector offices to cut down on leased office space. 

The former Australian Taxation Office worker, now aged 56, experienced severe neck and shoulder pain one day in April 2011 and felt her desk and chair heights had been changed. 

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Her supervisors at first told her no one else had used the workstation. A day later, her superiors apologised and said casual staff had used the workstation and had made adjustments.

The woman said it took several weeks for an occupational health and safety representative to return the workstation to previous settings.

"The ergonomic adjustments were major," she wrote. "The chair height and back rest, the desk height, the distance of the monitor the height of the monitor."

The woman said cortisone injections were needed to manage her pain. The details of her case are outlined in an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision.

It shows Comcare paid the woman compensation from 2011 to 2013 for aggravation of neck pain and the sprain of her shoulder and upper right arm.

In its decision, the tribunal upheld a previous Comcare decision to refuse the woman ongoing compensation because she had a diagnosed degenerative disease which it said would have been causing her current pain.

The woman was first compensated for work-related neck and shoulder pain in 2005.

Following this, she sat at a workstation with important ergonomic settings suited to her and had the sign at her desk.

Following the 2011 desk drama, in June 2012, a physician said an invalidity retirement was an appropriate consideration for the woman. 

"Her chronic pain disorder (and) chronic pain syndrome has led to a secondary depression which whilst perhaps under treated is not going to change her productivity and employability and is secondary to her chronic pain," the doctor wrote.

"Rehabilitation has been repeatedly unsuccessful. Sadly this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

"It is my opinion that (she) is permanently and totally incapacitated for work."