Rozie Hart dreaded going to the letterbox. When the mail arrived, she would ignore it for days before bundling it into a plastic shopping bag and storing it away. Since being on workers’ compensation, she had grown terrified of news arriving in envelopes marked with insurance company logos, and preferred not knowing. When she would finally open the bag again, her hands trembled uncontrollably. “Every time, it was another letter from the insurer, demanding I attend another medical appointment or discuss my injury all over again with another person,” she said. “They were constantly reviewing my payments and questioning the validity of my appointments. I felt it was a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ situation and it seemed like it was always bad news.” Ms Hart, 45, was one of 15 workplace injury victims from Melbourne who have shared their experiences in a survey aimed at spurring a discussion on how the workers’ compensation system could be improved. UnitingCare’s Creative Ministries Network, which commissioned the project, says it points out common problems in the process that cause considerable distress to injured workers. These included a lack of empathy and respect from case managers, the “adversarial” nature of an evidence-based process and the feeling insurers were prioritising employers while trying to disprove workers. Ms Hart, of Reservoir, worked as a sewing machinist in Melbourne for 20 years until a workplace injury ground her much-loved career to a halt. She was using a heavy industrial iron to individually press each garment of a late shipment of womenswear one afternoon in 2011, when a sharp pain started tearing at her elbows. That night, she woke in agony. X-rays later revealed she had torn ligaments in both her elbows. Ms Hart felt her employer and the insurer treated her with suspicion. She had to explain her situation to four different insurance case managers over a two-year period, and said the extent of her psychological injuries were regularly doubted. Her insurer refused to pay for her appointments three times. “I couldn’t relax … I was always worried they were trying to find reasons not to pay. Ms Hart said insurers should allow for retraining programs much earlier on. “When the insurer made an assessment and agreed I couldn’t go back to the same kind of work, I requested training courses, and I wanted to get onto it straight away. “But they wouldn’t do anything until the 12-month mark. I paid for a Certificate III in Business Administration by myself … the insurer only covered a 12-week MYOB and book-keeping course.” A WorkCover spokeswoman said the authority and its agents worked hard to “strike a balance between fair compensation and assisting injured workers to get back into the workforce”. “Being injured is a painful and distressing time in a worker’s life,” she said. “Ensuring that injured workers return to work continues to be a critical focus … as we recognise the many benefits of returning to work, including improved mental health.” She said WorkCover was “committed to improving the service to ensure that injured workers continue to be treated with dignity and respect. Researcher Sarah Pollock, who compiled the survey, said the majority of interviewees reported a feeling of being treated as untrustworthy and an “unreliable witness” to their own experience. Six teachers, three education support staff, two clothing manufacturing workers, three abattoir workers and one retail meat worker took part in the survey.
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