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What teachers who suffer a personal injury at school need to know about workers compensation

What teachers who suffer a personal injury at school need to know about workers compensation

Published on March 1, 2024 by Thomas Felizzi and Sasika JayasuriyaThomas Felizzi and Sasika Jayasuriya

An article published in the Sydney Morning Herald reports that a rising number of teachers in New South Wales schools are suffering from psychological injuries caused by work pressure, bullying and exposure to violence in schools, tripling the total bill for injuries in the last six years. If you are a teacher and wish to make a claim for compensation for a personal injury, it’s important to know how to do so, and also what to expect. This article details what teachers need to know about workers compensation and provides a case summary on White v Secretary, Department of Education [2023] NSWPIC 113.

A psychological injury can occur because of a specific event, such as a traumatic incident, or as a result of exposure to multiple and repeated events over a period of time, such as bullying, harassment, violence of students, untoward work pressures or a combination of them all. Psychological injuries can start out as stress, and can be later diagnosed formally as depressive disorder, adjustment disorder and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sections 4 and 9A of the Workers Compensation Act 1987 are the relevant sections for injured workers, including teachers, to be aware of when making a claim for injury, including psychiatric injury. The difference between sections 4 and 9A revolve around whether an injury can be categorised as a ‘disease’ or a ‘personal injury’. This usually turns on the medical evidence in a claim.

To establish an injury under section 4, an injured teacher would need to demonstrate an injury arose out of or in the course of employment and that the employment was the main contributing factor. For example, a disease is caused, when a person is unable to repeatedly deal with stress imposed upon them, and that ‘disease injury’ can be acquired a little or a bit more each day.

For a personal injury to be established under section 9A, employment needs to be the substantial contributing factor. There are certain criteria that need to be considered for this section including:

(a) the time and place of the injury,

(b) the nature of the work performed and the particular tasks of that work,

(c) the duration of the employment,

(d) the probability that the injury or a similar injury would have happened anyway, at about the same time or at the same stage of the worker’s life, if he or she had not been at work or had not worked in that employment,

(e) the worker’s state of health before the injury and the existence of any hereditary risks,

(f) the worker’s lifestyle and his or her activities outside the workplace.

This means to establish an injury under section 9A, the connection to employment needs to be substantial but at the same time, allows for other contributing factors.

It is important to understand how these sections work given the complexity of work arrangements and industrial issues all employees face, including teachers. Industrial issues can also be used by insurers and employers to argue certain defences in claims, namely section 11A of the Workers Compensation Act 1987.

An interesting case regarding psychological injury sustained by a teacher is seen in White v Secretary, Department of Education [2023] NSWPIC 113.

In this matter, Ms White was teaching a disabled student who passed away. As a result, she sustained a psychological injury on 7 August 2021. Following, she sustained a further psychological injury between 27 August 2021 and 8 November 2021 due to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate and how it was enforced by her employer. Live issues in the matter included whether Ms White’s injuries were caused by employment or if they were caused by reasonable action taken by her employer in respect of the COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

In her decision, Member Snell found that both injuries were established, and the Department was unreasonable in how they dealt with Ms White.

Considering the psychological injury resulting from the vaccine mandate, Member Snell assessed the medical evidence which highlighted that “the mandatory COVID vaccine has been perceived by the claimant as being bullied and harassed. The Claimant alleges that the behaviour of the principal towards her was one of intimidating and bullying in nature, which the principal has denied.”

The evidence established that the actions of the Department were both the substantial and main contributing factors to her psychological injury as “Ms White was already depressed by the loss of the child for whom she was caring. The mandatory COVID vaccination has resulted in exacerbation of her symptoms.”

It is important to know how to make a workers compensation claim, ensure your claim has the appropriate evidence and understand the defences which can be relied upon by insurers.

Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice. If you think you have suffered an injury as a result of your employment as a teacher, contact Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers on 1800 059 278 or visit our Contact Page and one of our lawyers will be able to assist you. 


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