National

Public servant says she was allergic to her workplace at Australian Taxation Office

The Australian Taxation Office has been drawn into a three-year compensation case after a former worker said she suffered from "sick building syndrome" when working for the public service.

The Australian Taxation Office was pulled into a compensation case about a medically controversial condition.
The Australian Taxation Office was pulled into a compensation case about a medically controversial condition.  Photo: Louie Douvis

Amirah Aboutaleb said chemicals in ATO buildings she worked in contributed to the exhaustion of her immune and adrenal systems and she should have been allowed to work from home.

By May 2012 when Ms Aboutaleb, a federal public servant of 22 years, lodged her compensation claim she feared her work endangered her life but the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has rejected her claim.

She said for a few years she sought medical treatment for symptoms such as stomach bloating, pelvic pain and inflammation, skin irritation and swelling all over her body as well as unknown allergies.

The woman said her ill-health – a medically controversial condition also known as multiple chemical sensitivity – started May 1, 2009, when she returned from a holiday to a newly installed work station where a wood-like laminate had been installed. Some doctors do not recognise multiple chemical sensitivity as a condition. Afterwards she worked at various sites and her health deteriorated. 

Advertisement

Ms Aboutaleb told the Administrative Appeals Tribunal after accepting redundancy in 2013 she moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, where she worked in an office not as detrimental to her health even though sometimes the perfume worn by workmates caused her to fall asleep at her job.

She returned to Australia in August, 2014, because the fireplace smoke in New Zealand caused respiratory problems and redness in her skin but she said when she arrived in Mildura, Victoria, the hot weather and insecticides in fruit trees caused her further health problems. 

Under cross-examination Ms Aboutaleb agreed multiple chemical sensitivity was a controversial issue and said it was not well-known by most doctors, according to tribunal member Roslyn Blackley's decision published Thursday.

She said despite her health problems with some electronic devices, and the chemicals inside them, she could use a laptop computer at home.

The tribunal accepted a doctor's opinion Ms Aboutaleb suffered from somatic syndrome – a condition that has "no organic explanation, being a manifestation of psychological or emotional distress associated with a variety of physical symptoms".

The tribunal found she had no physical impairment or disability associated with her multitude of symptoms and was not incapacitated other than by her own assertions.

"This is consistent with Ms Aboutaleb's own evidence that she is fit for employment and wants to work,"  Dr Blackley said in her decision. 

"In all the circumstances the tribunal finds that Ms Aboutaleb is not in a condition that is outside the boundaries of normal mental functioning and behaviour.

"Therefore Ms Aboutaleb does not suffer an ailment as defined in the [Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988], and she does not satisfy the requirements of an injury."