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Socially Constructed Hierarchies of Impairments: The Case of Australian and Irish Workers’ Access to Compensation for Injuries

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Objectives: Socially constructed hierarchies of impairment complicate the general disadvantage experienced by workers with disabilities. Workers with a range of abilities categorized as a “disability” are likely to experience less favourable treatment at work and have their rights to work discounted by laws and institutions, as compared to workers without disabilities. Value judgments in workplace culture and local law mean that the extent of disadvantage experienced by workers with disabilities additionally will depend upon the type of impairment they have. Rather than focusing upon the extent and severity of the impairment and how society turns an impairment into a recognized disability, this article aims to critically analyse the social hierarchy of physical versus mental impairment. Methods: Using legal doctrinal research methods, this paper analysis how Australian and Irish workers’ compensation and negligence laws regard workers with mental injuries and impairments as less deserving of compensation and protection than like workers who have physical and sensory injuries or impairments. Results: This research finds that workers who acquire and manifest mental injuries and impairments at work are less able to obtain compensation and protection than workers who have developed physical and sensory injuries of equal or lesser severity. Organizational cultures and governmental laws and policies that treat workers less favourably because they have mental injuries and impairments perpetuates unfair and artificial hierarchies of disability attributes. Conclusions: We conclude that these “sanist” attitudes undermine equal access to compensation for workplace injury as prohibited by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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  1. Adopted by General Assembly resolution A/RES/61/611 in 2006) ATS 2008 ATS 12 (Entered into force generally 3 May 2008); signed by Ireland in March 2007.

  2. CRPD, art 1.

  3. For example, indifference may create barriers that operate differently depending if a person has an intellectual or sensory disability, or the combination of both.

  4. When disability intersects with other attributes, or where a person has multiple impairments, this further complicates how disadvantage is experienced and regulated.

  5. The employment relationship is one means of structuring remunerated work. For the purposes of this paper, we will focus on this form of structuring work relationships.

  6. Sutherland v Hatton and other appeals [2002] EWCA Civ 76 [5].

  7. The DSM developed by the American Psychiatric Association and first published in 1952 is now its 5th edition (published in May 2013). The ICD was developed by the World Health Organisation in 1990 and is in its 10th revision (the 11th revision is due in 2018).

  8. Sutherland v Hatton and other appeals [2002] EWCA Civ 76 [47].

  9. White v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1999] 2 AC 455 (Lord Hoffman).

  10. Fletcher v Commissioner for Public Works in Ireland [2003] 1 IR 465 (Keane CJ).

  11. As amended by the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1900, Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906, Workmen’s Compensation Act 1934, Workmen’s Compensation Act 1948 and Workmen’s Compensation Act 1955.

  12. Workmen’s Compensation Act 1897 as amended by the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906, Workmen’s Compensation Act 1934, Workmen’s Compensation (Amendment) Act 1948.

  13. Social Welfare (Occupational Injuries) Act 1966 (Ireland).

  14. In Australia, this is provided for on a federal, state, and mainland territory jurisdictional basis.

  15. In Moore v Barton & Ors [2014] VSC 78 an employee was injured in 1989 and was still receiving payments 29 years later.

  16. Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 (Ireland) ss 74, 75.

  17. The current base payment is €193 per week. See further

  18. Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 (Cth); Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth); Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 (Cth).

  19. Return to Work Act 2014 (SA); Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW); Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Act 1981 (WA); Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld); Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 (Vic).

  20. Return to Work Act; Workers’ Compensation Act 1951 (ACT).

  21. Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 (Ireland) s 74.

  22. Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) s 32.

  23. Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) s 32(2).

  24. Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW) ss 65A and 66; Return to Work Act 2014 (SA) s 56; Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 (Vic) s 56.

  25. See, for example, Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth) s 5A.

  26. Workers’ Compensation Act 1951 (ACT).

  27. Comcare v Martin [2016] HCA 43.

  28. Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) s 189.

  29. S. Norton v Blight (No. 3) [2016] SADC 17.

  30. Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 (Ireland) s 75.

  31. Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 (Ireland) s 75(4)(b)(i).

  32. Return to Work Act 2014 (SA) ss 56(3), 58(3).

  33. Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW) s 66.

  34. Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW) s 66.

  35. Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 (Vic) ss 211, 212.

  36. Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) ss 188, 192.


  38. Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 (Ireland) ss 14(2), 15, 31.

  39. Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 (Ireland) s 32.

  40. There is no reference to psychological injury claims in any of the PIAB’s annual reports. The PIAB has also confirmed in an email (dated 22/02/2017): “we generally would not assess a claim where the injury is wholly of a psychological nature”.

  41. Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 (Ireland) s 17(1)(b)(ii)(II).

  42. Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 (Ireland) s 17(1)(b)(i).

  43. The fee for respondents is €600 and for claimants €45 working out at a delivery cost of 6.5% when other costs such as medical costs are included [44]. This can be compared with an estimated delivery cost of 46% of the overall award when a case is litigated before the courts (estimate based on the Motor Insurance Advisory Report 2004).

  44. In 2015, actions were resolved by PIAB in an average time of 7.1 months [44]; in comparison, litigants may wait years to reach a determination before the courts.

  45. This approach is reflected in the Irish decision of McGrath v Trintech Technologies [2005] IR 382 and the Australian decision of Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44.

  46. See Part II above for the rationale for the distinction between mental and physical impairments.

  47. Lynch v Knight (1891) 9 HLC 577, 598 (Lord Wensleydale).

  48. For Ireland see Byrne v Southern and Western Ry Co (February 1884) CA and for Australia see Tame v New South Wales [2002] 211 CLR 317.

  49. For Irish examples see Mullally v Bus Éireann [1992] ILRM 722 (HC), Kelly v Hennessy [1995] 3 IR 253 and in Australia Giffard v Strang Patrick Stevedoring Pty. Ltd. [2003] 214 CLR 269.

  50. In Ireland see McGrath v Trintech Technologies [2005] IR 382 and in Australia Arnold v Midwest Radio Limited (1998) Aust Torts Rep 81–472 for early examples of these types of cases.

  51. Fletcher v Commissioners for Public Works [2003] 1 IR 465.

  52. McGrath v Trintech Technologies [53] (Laffoy J).

  53. For examples see New South Wales v Fahy [2007] HCA 20, Tame v New South Wales [2002] 211 CLR 317.

  54. For examples see Gillespie v Commonwealth (1991) 104 ACTR 1, Zammit v Queensland Corrective Services Comission [1998] QSC 169, Sinnott v FJ Trousers Pty Ltd [2000] VSC 124, and Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44.

  55. [1995] 3 IR 253.

  56. Kelly v Hennessey [1995] 3 IR 253, 258 (Hamilton CJ).

  57. [2005] 4 IR 382.

  58. McGrath v Trintech Technologies [2005] IR 382 [103].

  59. Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44 [14].

  60. S v State of New South Wales [2009] NSWCA 164 [52] (Macfarlane JA). This line of reasoning is consistent with the recommendations of the Australian Review of the Law of Negligence Final Report [50].

  61. Tame v New South Wales [2002] 211 CLR 317 [192].

  62. [1998] 2 ILRM 385.

  63. Barclay v An Post [1998] 2 ILRM 385, 399.

  64. Barclay v An Post [1998] 2 ILRM 385, 399.

  65. [2005] IR 382.

  66. [2002] EWCA Civ 76.

  67. Sutherland v Hatton and other appeals [2002] EWCA Civ 76 [34].

  68. Sutherland v Hatton and other appeals [2002] EWCA Civ 76 [34].

  69. Sutherland v Hatton and other appeals [2002] EWCA Civ 76 [34].

  70. Civil Liability Act 1961 (Ireland) s 34(1).

  71. For a discussion of the new bullying jurisdiction found in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) Part 6-4B see [51].

  72. See for a recent example Wearne v State of Victoria [2017] VSC 25 where the court awarded a state government employee, with known mental health issues, who suffered a “breakdown” after managers failed to properly consider her condition when they addressed a mounting conflict with a supervisor, $210,000 damages for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life and $415,345 in pecuniary losses.

  73. Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44.

  74. Fraser v Burswood Resort (Management) Ltd. [2014] WASCA 130.

  75. Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44 [29].

  76. [2007] QCA 366.

  77. Ibid [41] (Keane JA).

  78. Ibid [101].

  79. Once a person is diagnosed as having a mental illness, if the person refuses further treatment then the fact they are refusing “help” is used to suggest a mental impairment and lack of capacity.


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This line of study was supported in part by grants from the Administration on Community Living (ACL) and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for the NIDILRR Southeast ADA Center Grant #90DP0090-01-00, the NIDILRR Community Living and Supported Decision-Making DRRP Grant #90DP0076, and the NIDILIRR Americans with Disabilities Act Participatory Action Research Consortium (ADA-PARC) Grant #H133A120008; and, by the Office for Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP), in the U.S. Department of Labor. For additional information on these projects and related funding, see Valuable assistance and comments were received from Joseph Lelliott, Graeme Orr and Shivaun Quinlivan. The program of research herein is supported, in part, by grants to the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University (For additional information on BBI’s funding sources, see; Special Studies Program funding from the TC Beirne School of Law; and from the visiting fellow program at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, National University Ireland, Galway, IE.

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Paul Harpur, Ursula Connolly and Peter Blanck declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Harpur, P., Connolly, U. & Blanck, P. Socially Constructed Hierarchies of Impairments: The Case of Australian and Irish Workers’ Access to Compensation for Injuries. J Occup Rehabil 27, 507–519 (2017).

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