WORKERS should be uneasy about the Queensland parliamentary committee inquiry into the state's workers' compensation system, the findings of which are due soon.
The inquiry's brief was to look at whether the 2010 changes to the workers' compensation scheme to water down common-law entitlements of injured workers have reduced common-law claim numbers, WorkCover's current and future financial position, and the scheme's impact on the state's economy, competitiveness and employment.
The Queensland workers' compensation scheme pays statutory benefits to injured workers and also pays medical expenses for treatment and rehabilitation required because of an injury at work.
It pays benefits until an injury is judged "stable and stationary". A claim cannot go more than five years and weekly benefits are capped at $200,000 over the life of the claim.
The scheme also entitles workers to bring common-law claims for damages for pain, suffering, permanent impairment, loss of income and loss of earning capacity for injuries caused by negligent work accidents and unsafe work practices.
While workers' compensation premiums are a cost to business, Queensland has the second-lowest premiums in the country at 1.45 per cent of wages. The only cheaper premium is in Victoria, where it is 1.29 per cent of wages.
Despite this, it is feared the Government wants to push down our premium further and reduce entitlements for injured workers.
One feared change would be to follow NSW and end the entitlement to statutory benefits for injuries suffered while travelling to and from work.
These claims account for about 6 per cent of workers' compensation statutory benefit claims. WorkCover, however, often obtains a refund of benefits from compulsory third-party insurers in these cases for accidents involving a motor vehicle.
Claims made by injured workers do not affect the premium paid by employers but they do provide coverage particularly to workers in rural Queensland and in the mining industry who have to travel significant distances at some risk to get to and from work.
I hope the LNP Government will not take away benefits that are an important protection for rural workers.
It is also feared the Government wants to introduce a threshold which workers must cross before they can bring a claim for damages against negligent employers.
Before workers can bring a common-law claim, they need to have an assessment of their "work related impairment".
The guides used by WorkCover do not measure permanent pain or disability, but impairment using an assessment code.
Workers with lifting-related injuries, often back injuries that drive them out of employment, are routinely assessed at 0 per cent because the permanent injury does not register on the assessment scale.
If the Government imposed a threshold of 0 per cent impairment, many Queenslanders would lose the right to pursue employers for injuries caused by dangerous work practices.
Working families would suffer significant financial disadvantage and face a lifetime of depending on social security benefits.
Also, employers would realise they can expose their workers to injury without the fear of being sued, which must nurture complacency in workplace health and safety. This has occurred in New Zealand where workers cannot bring common-law claims.
Any watering down of the entitlement of Queensland workers to sue for injuries because of unsafe work places will lead to an increased level of worker injury.
Q-Comp's report on the state workers' compensation scheme for 2011-12 shows it is quite healthy.
Common-law claims in 2009-10 dropped by 9.6 per cent and another 4.7 per cent in 2011-12.
Numbers will likely drop again this year because of changes introduced in 2010 that reduced the viability of smaller claims and increased the level of culpability that needs to be proven to bring a successful common-law claim.
Also, damages payouts in 2011-12 dropped 6.9 per cent. And the profit for Queensland WorkCover in that year was more than $150 million.
Queensland is envied for having the best and most profitable workers' compensation system in the country.
It is hoped that common sense prevails and the scheme is left alone.
Mark O'Connor is a director of Brisbane law firm Bennett and Philp Lawyers.