Written by Peter CarterJune 20, 2021
A central Queensland mine worker with multiple pre-existing medical conditions has been awarded substantial damages for a rare injury induced by prolonged vibration from heavy machinery he operated over 12.5 hour shifts.Jamie Tyndall – a fishing trawler skipper for a decade in a former life – started as a machinery operator at the Rio Tinto underground coking coal mine at Kestrel in the Bowen Basin in September 2011.
Then aged 40, he was assigned to a development crew operating a “continuous miner” cutting underground roads to extract coal by shuttle car and expose fresh panel sections.
Tyndall mostly drove a loader as logistical support to the four bolt fixers, an electrician and a fitter whose roles were to shore up roof and wall supports and make safe the tunnel as the mining machine edged forward underground.
Because the loader was required to be operated in both forward and reverse, he sat sideways i.e. at 90° to the direction of travel and with his left hand grasping the spinner knob mounted on the solid steel steering wheel.
With solid tires and no suspension other than that in the operator’s seat, the loader operator needed to grip the spinner knob and wheel tightly to avoid injury in the cabin from being flung around by the “bouncy” conditions.
From September 2015 to March 2016 Tyndall operated the loader for 7-9 hour stretches for 10 shifts/month causing him to develop a condition in his left hand that he thought – when first reaching out for medical help for the pain and discolouration in his left ring finger – was an infection.
The company nurse referred him to Emerald Hospital for what was ultimately diagnosed as vibration induced “white finger syndrome”.
Within a few weeks the escalating pain in his left hand meant he could not use it at all. He resigned from the mine in February 2017 after some “suitable duties” RTW attempts had failed.
The mine-worker’s injury compensation lawsuit filed in March 2019 alleged the injury was the result of the constant and prolonged vibration through his body and hand while constantly holding on to the spinner knob.
The claim eventually came before Justice Graeme Crow in Rockhampton in April 2021 by which time he could only control the pain by not using his left hand at all.
His Honour had no difficulty in concluding a vibration injury was readily foreseeable and that both types of loaders to which Tyndall had been assigned “had a vibration level rating which posed a high risk”.
He found that Rio Tinto ought – having regard to various studies concerning the risk of vibration injuries from heavy machinery operation – to have limited the duration of each operator’s stint to less than two hours per shift.
Not deterred, the mining giant contended Tyndall’s agonising left hand pain was the result of prior heavy manual handling work, prolonged heavy smoking, extreme anxiety or other pre-existing medical conditions.
It recruited vascular surgeon Wallace Foster who insisted that vibration was “irrelevant” as a cause notwithstanding Tyndall’s left hand had been exposed – he agreed – to “repetitive micro trauma”.
Foster’s conclusion that the arterial disease in the plaintiff’s left hand and forearm was a result of heavy smoking was – in the judge’s view – a mere “ipse dixit” or “oracular pronouncement” not based on facts and therefore worthless.
Dr Phillip Vecchio, rheumatologist and Dr Cameron Mackay, hand surgeon both gave opinions favouring Rio Tinto’s arguments but as they had largely assumed Foster’s conclusions to be correct, their conclusions were not accorded any weight.
On the other hand, Simon Quinn – Tyndall’s treating vascular specialist – declared the connection between the “chronic exposure to heavy vibrational forces that caused repeated micro trauma” and the resulting injury to be unequivocal.
Quinn – with whom colleague Toby Cohen concurred – conducted several procedures to exclude cardiac pathology and performed a left arm angiogram to reveal extensive damage to the radial, ulnar and palmar digital arteries as the causes of the untreatable thrombosed left ring finger.
In accepting the evidence of Drs Cohen and Dr Quinn, Justice Crow reasoned that had Rio Tinto restricted loader operators to 2-hour stints and implemented appropriate duty rotations, “it is more likely than not” that Tyndall would have avoided the debilitating vibration injury.
After assessing loss of income for the four-year period since stopping work at $525k, the judge discounted future income losses for the then 50-yr-old by applying a notional residual income earning capacity of $750/week and for contingencies, to $975k. The total assessment was $1.557 million.