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How employers can minimise risk by being aware of the exception

Employers these days, even small operations with limited resources, are aware of the need to provide safe systems of work and training in those systems.

But what happens when circumstances change, and workers are required to undertake tasks outside their role? Notwithstanding the unpredictability of an event that might result in workers performing tasks outside their usual expertise or role, an employer is still obliged to ensure the worker is trained to perform the new task, even if the task is an exception.

Typically, these scenarios arise when workers’ roles expand to cover co-workers on leave or other resource shortages. It may even be that a worker volunteers to perform a particular task without the knowledge of the employer in an effort to assist or otherwise further the employer's interests.

For example, an office worker in a factory might enter the factory floor to run an errand. If that worker enters a dangerous area and suffers injury due to not wearing personal protective equipment or failing to follow safety guidelines that were unknown to them, the employer will still be liable.

Another example might be where a worker covers in the absence of another worker and operates a particular machine that he/she had seen the absent worker using, without undertaking specific training.

In those examples, an astute employer would see the need for training in any foreseeable task a worker could perform, but what if the additional task is "domestic" or mundane in nature?

For example, what if a worker is asked to clean the staff kitchen or toilet and suffers a caustic burn due to not wearing protective gloves? Or sprays some herbicide around the yard and suffers poisoning from failing to properly mix the chemicals?

The employer is at risk of being found liable for any injury suffered to a worker in the course of their employment even if that worker was performing a non-routine task caused by a temporary disruption, and even in circumstances where the task was seemingly mundane and the worker was left to devise his or her own work method.

The test for the employer should always be "assume nothing, prove everything". Always assume any task a worker might be required to perform is foreign to the worker and be in a position to prove adequate instructions were given regarding a safe method to perform the task.

"The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication."