The Guardian April 24, 2002

The rack injures workers

It's a bit like being on the rack. A piece of machinery that twists and 
tortures the human body, contorting the head over one shoulder, then the 
other  eventually leaving the victim disabled. But cries for help are 
only answered by further punishment  longer and longer stretches. And so 
the rack analogy is complete. The turning of the screw.

"It" is the towering straddle  a mobile crane used to notch up 
productivity on the wharves, but also a modern day instrument of torture. 
And it is now the subject of criminal proceedings in the NSW Industrial 
Relations Commission.

Before the nationwide lockout in 1998 straddle operators worked around two 
hours before being relieved for other duties. There were three drivers for 
every two machines. But under the first enterprise agreement after MUA 
members went back in the gates at Patrick, things changed.

With the drive to cut back on labour while increasing profits and 
productivity, stretches on the straddle nearly doubled. Patrick did away 
with job rotation. It was one person for every machine, forcing straddle 
operators to work for as long as three to four hours in one stretch.

Repetitive strain injuries, agonising neck and shoulder pain and crook 
backs soon became common place. But despite medical certificates requesting 
other duties, disabled workers were put on compo or forced to grin and bear 

In July 2001, the union fought back. Five charges of safety breaches have 
been brought against Patrick Stevedores in the NSW Industrial Relations 
Commission by the Maritime Union of Australia's (MUA) Central Branch 
Secretary Robert Coombs.

"Workers have a fundamental right to a safe working place", said MUA 
National Secretary Paddy Crumlin. "The union is there to ensure that."

The hearings opened in February, with Patrick arguing against the case 
proceeding. Most revealing are the company's own records and reports 
submitted to court.

For example, Dr James G Bodel, orthopedic surgeon and company medico-legal 
expert, was provided with videotape of a straddle operation by Patrick, 
before being asked to assess workers complaining of injury.

"Extreme posturing of neck and upper body when driving", Bodel noted. 
"Clinically there appears to be an excessive amount of rotational movement 
(of the head)."

Confirmation that the straddle was dangerous and that the workers were 
genuinely in pain was repeated in all four medico legal reports that the 
top Sydney surgeon submitted to Patrick.

Dr Bodel is not a union doctor. He estimates he does about 90 percent of 
his work for insurance companies and solicitors.

In giving evidence in the Commission, Dr Bodel said, "Anybody at any age, I 
don't believe should ... do what I have just observed being done ... It 
doesn't seem, in my clinical judgement, to be a manoeuvre that is a wise 
thing to do for too long ... and put those body parts at risk ... Any joint 
in the body is not ideally used to its extreme range of motion."

So too the opinion of Dr Michael Eagleton, general surgeon and workers' 
compensation doctor of choice when ensuring claims are genuine, who said of 
straddle operator Peter Howlett's work condition (see case below): "Mr 
Howlett's description of the driving position and the driver's duties, lead 
me to believe that the situation for the driver is ergonomically unsound."

Howlett's debilitating pain "would recur if he resumed driving the straddle 
truck at the intensity with which he drove it in late 1999, early 2000. In 
my opinion his employment has been a substantial contributing factor to his 

Yet, not only did management continually ignore such professional medical 
advice, forcing injured workers back into the straddle cabin after they 
returned to work, they also chose to ignore ergonomic reports they had 
commissioned on the use of the straddle. Not one report, but ten.

Case study

Dr Bodel noted that Peter Howlett described himself as one of the fastest 
drivers with the quickest pick up rates, clocking over 200 containers each 
shift, with a record of 340. He loved overtime, frequently working six or 
seven weeks with only one or two days off.

In February 2000 he was referred to Dr David Monahar and had three months 
off work, with another 13 days off sick in early 2001. He only managed to 
return to work by wearing a corset and by taking analgesic medication. He 
complained of lower and upper back pain, the pain radiating into the left 

Dr Bodel: "The patient's complaints are quite genuine and the ongoing 
disability relates to his work." He recommended a five-minute break every 
hour and modified work and better rotation of the workload "so that he is 
not driving the straddle machine for such prolonged periods without a 

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Acknowledgements: Maritime Workers' Journal

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