FIFO worker 'trapped' on mine site during mental breakdown
A FORMER mine worker who suffered permanent injury after being trapped on a remote Queensland site while suffering a mental breakdown has won a major legal victory paving the way to a "substantial" compensation payout.
Barry Haack was employed at Glencore's Lady Loretta zinc mine, about 140km northwest of Mt Isa, when the incident occurred at the end of 2014 following months of alleged bullying at the hands of colleagues and managers.
The Mackay father-of-two had suffered a wrist injury earlier that year which required him to be placed on light duties. He claimed his immediate supervisor was "always on my back, riding me", and that his co-workers would mimic him, claiming he was "milking and making up the injury".
Some of his colleagues allegedly threatened to bring in white chocolate and nicknamed him "The Milky Bar Kid". Mr Haack said the bullying gradually wore down his mental state until one day, at the end of December, he had a breakdown while underground.
"I just lost it I just started crying, and I didn't even know it was going to happen," he said in 2016. "And that's when I asked to be taken out of the hole."
Over the next three days, despite Mr Haack's deteriorating mental condition and repeated pleas for his employer to send him home, his managers insisted he go through the formal complaints process by filling out a form and attending mediation sessions.
After an initial meeting with the on-site medic, he told his wife on the phone that he had had a breakdown, that "they" were looking up flights for him, and that he thought that he would be going home after "they" sorted out the "form".
Over the next few days, Mr Haack reported that he was "desperate" to leave, "going mental", and later told his wife that he was going to steal a truck and "drive out". At one point, his wife was so concerned that she contacted Queensland Police, who contacted Glencore regarding Mr Haack's safety.
"I was experiencing basically being trapped - trapped there," he told the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission. "And it was like I was in a big dream that I couldn't get out of. And I was just - and no one cared. I rang my wife and she gave me the number of Beyondblue, and I gave them a call."
Mr Haack, who has been diagnosed with "adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, generalised anxiety disorder and social phobia" as a result of the ordeal, in December won a drawn-out legal battle after the QIRC found in his favour.
He initially filed a WorkCover application with Glencore's private insurer XtraCare in 2015. The application was rejected and appealed several times before landing with the Workers' Compensation Regulator, which sided with Glencore. That decision was overturned by the QIRC.
"It was incumbent on the employer to ensure that the appellant was given access to appropriate medical attention not only because it was sought by him but because it was apparent that he was clearly unwell when he returned to the surface on 30 December and the following days until he left the mine site on 2 January, 2015," QIRC deputy president Daniel O'Connor said.
"It would have been a relatively easy exercise for the appellant's employer to arrange transport to take the appellant to Mt Isa to access medical care. It did not do so. Accordingly, the management action was unreasonable and taken in an unreasonable way."
The QIRC also found Glencore breached Mr Haack's confidentiality by sharing the contents of the HR discussions with those alleged to have bullied him, contributing to his mental injury.
"The appellant did not wish to participate in a formal complaint process as he believed that the crew members who harassed and bullied him would become aware of the complaint," Mr O'Connor said. "The appellant's reservations were, ultimately, and unfortunately, well founded."
Mr O'Connor added that while he accepted "the general thrust" of Glencore's submission that Mr Haack was "not isolated in his room at the mine site", he considered that Mr Haack "felt isolated because his room was located adjacent to [his supervisor's] room and he did not wish to encounter him".
"As a consequence of the breach of confidentiality the appellant felt that he could no longer trust anyone ... and, his mental state by this stage had began to decline," he said.
Shine Lawyers solicitor Craig Oliver, who represented Mr Haack, said the "damages obtained should be substantial". "He's affected for the rest of his life," Mr Oliver said.
He said the case highlighted the need for better procedures to deal with mental health on remote worksites, and the higher duty of care involved when the worker was so reliant on their employer.
"He was vulnerable, he asked to leave and wasn't allowed to," Mr Oliver said.
"If you have someone in this scenario who had broken their leg, they would be taken to hospital. In this scenario, because psychiatric injury isn't as easy to see, ultimately procedure was prioritised over protection. One lesson for employers is procedure won't protect you if the procedure is flawed."
A notice of claim for damages will now be served, after which Glencore has a maximum of six months to respond with the parties then coming together for a conference to discuss settlement.
"The reality is this has been going on so long, we would hope that time-frame would be dramatically shortened," Mr Oliver said.
"What should have been a fairly simple application for compensation has taken two years to resolve. It's bad enough for someone with any injury, but the emotional impact of this for someone who has a significant psychiatric injury is just massive."
Glencore has been contacted for comment.