When the Hazelwood open cut mine fire broke out in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley in early 2014, experienced excavator operator David Briggs got an urgent call from RTL Mining & Earthworks asking if he would come and work for them to help put out the blaze.
David accepted and over a 12-week period he helped excavate burning coal from the mine so the fire could be more easily managed.
He was not provided any respiratory protection while carrying out his duties, and his skin and clothing was covered in smoke, coal dust and other pollutants at the end of each shift.
Less than six months after finishing up at Hazelwood, he developed “flu-like” symptoms including a dry cough, sore throat and shortness of breath. He has since been diagnosed with a rare interstitial lung disease and autoimmune condition that requires him to carry an oxygen cylinder with him wherever he goes to help him breathe.
David lodged a WorkCover claim against RTL Mining & Earthworks seeking weekly payments and medical treatment expenses arguing his condition constituted a workplace injury. He had never suffered from a serious illness prior to when his symptoms emerged in November 2014, nor has he ever smoked. And immediately prior to commencing work with RTL Mining & Earthworks, he underwent a pre-employment medical, which included a lung function test. He was told by the nurse that his results were “excellent”.
Despite this, his claim was rejected by RTL’s WorkCover insurer, Allianz, forcing David to take the matter to court.
Maurice Blackburn represented David at his WorkCover trial at the Morwell Court in early 2019. Magistrate Simon Garnett ruled there was a “causal link” between what David was exposed to while fighting the mine fire and his subsequent health conditions. He found that David is, therefore, entitled to weekly payments of compensation and reasonable medical and the like expenses, in addition to being entitled to lump sum compensation for what is a permanent impairment.
Now aged 59, from Moondarra, David describes his legal win as “a relief”. He says he’s found it incredibly difficult to survive financially and pay for medical treatment over the past five years, given he’s been without an income. But he hopes to soon be able to get on with his life as best he can in the circumstances, although he is no longer a candidate for a lung transplant due to the deterioration in his health.
“I knew right from the start when I fell ill that it was directly related to the work I carried out at the mine fire,” he says. “We were just thrown in there to put out the fire whatever the consequences, so it’s a relief knowing that the court agreed.”
For more information about WorkCover claims, see: https://www.mauriceblackburn.com.au/injury-law/work-related-injuries/