Cobram in northern Victoria is the home of Murray Goulburn Co-operative Co. Ltd, the nation’s largest cheese manufacturer. Having started here in 1951, it has expanded to seven other locations in Victoria, and even one across the Tasman. In Cobram, Murray Goulburn has around 500 staff members, making it by far the town’s largest employer. One of these staff is Bev Campbell-McClair. More than 20 years ago she came for an afternoon job interview. She started work at 8.00pm that very same day.
It was two days before Christmas. Bev worked on the processing floor. It’s a lively environment, full of large machines and pallets loaded with tonnes of cheese ready to be shredded and sliced. On the 22nd of January 2004, Bev pulled an empty pallet off a pallet lifter (a job that is now done with a hand fork-lift). Her foot slipped forward just at the wrong moment, and the weight of the pallet broke her ankle.
It was only eight days later that Bev was back at work. Her foot was in plaster and she was in a wheelchair. “I would rather be doing things than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself,” she says. WPI recommends employers have an alternative duties register (RTW Task Library) to simplify the process of finding injured workers new tasks.
Murray Goulburn maintains such a library in order to bring its people back to work as soon as possible. Being in a wheelchair obviously limited what Bev could do, but she was determined to be active – and Murray Goulburn supported her. After some consultation she moved off the cheese shredder and started labelling waxed blocks – something that can be done sitting down.
Unfortunately the healing process did not go smoothly. Some weeks later the plaster came off but she didn’t last an hour at work – the pain was just too intense. Bev had been experiencing a burning sensation in her foot, but had been met with some scepticism from doctors when she described this. This even led her to question if the pain was real, or just imagined. GIO approved more specialised treatment. When Bev visited neurosurgeon Dr Paul D’Urso, she asked him, “Is it just in my head or what?” His reply was simple. “It’s not in your head; it’s in your foot.” Dr D’Urso identified a crushed nerve – the cause of the high-level pain that she had been experiencing.
The treatment was to bury a simulator in her hip with two wires running close to her spine. A magnet is used to turn it on and off, and the battery has to be replaced every four years – not a simple process. The simulator did not eliminate the pain, but brought it from a level nine or ten, down to a bearable level three. Bev loved her old job and being part of the team, but it was not going to be possible for her to return to her pre-injury duties on the processing floor. Apart from the pain, she could not lift anything heavier than five kilograms. The best option was to retrain. Murray Goulburn offered her a place working in the office.
“I’d never used a computer,” says Bev. “I didn’t know how to turn one on.” It was a scary prospect for someone who was more at home feeding 20kg blocks of cheese into shredders than CDs into disk drives. But Bev persevered, and when a vacancy came up in dispatch she applied and got the job.
Bev’s return-to-work was reasonably complex and lengthy, and required a significant amount of medical intervention. Everyone worked hard to support the process, quickly approving the various stages of treatment, ensuring all bills were paid promptly, and staying in touch with Bev and Murray Goulburn.
“Everything went smoothly,” says Bev.
Apart from the week following the initial accident and some time off for medical treatment, Bev has continued to work through this entire process. This could not have happened without the support of her employer. They found appropriate tasks, and even had a taxi bring her to work when she couldn’t drive. “If there was no taxi available, my supervisor would pick me up,” says Bev. “I have really been looked after and I appreciate that.”
Murray Goulburn has a number of initiatives to support injured workers return to work. Acting in conjunction with the Insurance Agent, the WorkSafe Return to Work Fund and WPI, they created a toolkit for managers and supervisors, for injured workers, and for doctors and other health advisors.
They also created a job task library. The library divides each job into individual tasks. It has been put on their website so that doctors can access it, allowing the doctors to easily identify which duties are suitable for an injured worker or a new starter.
For example, if a job is in a wet area it would not be appropriate for someone with an open wound. The Cobram factory has piloted the process, and it will soon be rolled out to other Murray Goulburn sites around Victoria.
Responding to the recommendations of local medical practitioners, Murray Goulburn now ensures that a company representative accompanies injured staff not only on their initial visit to the doctor, but also on subsequent visits. By that time doctors know more about the injury, meaning they are more able to advise what duties will be suitable when the employee returns.
This policy avoids misunderstandings that can lead to workers being placed at risk of exacerbating their injury. It is part of an effort for more communication between the various parties.
While it is often the physical impact of an injury that gets the most attention, it is arguably the mental and emotional components of the recovery process that are more important.
“I knew if I sat at home it would cause problems for me, mentally. I was in a lot of pain, the tablets were not working and keeping busy was my way of dealing with it. Some mornings I don’t feel like going to work, but once I get going I feel fine,” said Bev.
The statistics tell us that injuries that are covered by workers compensation claims cost significantly more and take far longer to be resolved than when the same injury is experienced by a private individual. Is the difference one of approach? The positive attitude that Bev has demonstrated in her unswerving determination to get back on the job is to be admired.
WPI have experience in assisting all types of organizations in developing successful RTW processes, toolkits, RTW task library, templates and other relevant RTW documentation, starting from as little as $2500. Contact Teresa Coffey, Principal Consultant on 03 9346 9832 for further information.