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Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1420

Senator CROWLEY —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health. Has the Minister's attention been drawn to an article in today's Age, referring to a walk-out of workers in the Health Insurance Commission in Strathfield, Sydney? The article reported that the walk-out is due to the actions of management towards employees suffering from repetition strain injury who are being referred to psychiatrists, and also to changes in work structures in their office not being adhered to. Can the Minister comment on the increase in the number of repetition strain injury cases in this office, and the practice of referring such people to a psychiatrist as part of their assessment, especially in the light of a quite different outcome reported by Repco, Launceston, in dealing with similar problems?

Senator GRIMES —Yes, I did see the article in this morning's Press concerning the problem at Strathfield, and I made some inquiries as to what had happened there. My understanding is that 47 staff stopped work for half a day on 6 May. As it was reported in the Press, the union, which is the Association of Professional Scientists of Australia, was concerned mainly at the lack of agreed rest breaks, the failure of the Commission to take responsibility for work-related repetition strain injury and the referral of RSI sufferers to a psychiatrist, they alleged, on the instructions of the Commission. The Commission and the union have agreed to the granting of 10-minute rest breaks within the hour when the staff is engaged on continuous keying.

Since November 1984 the need for Commission staff at Strathfield to do continuous keying has in fact been substantially reduced. This has been achieved by interspersing clerical work with the keyboard function. As a consequence, it is claimed that there has been no need in many cases for a 10-minute rest break. The Commission certainly denies that there has been any breach of the agreement to that effect. The Commission's track record on repetition strain injury compared with those of other areas of the Public Service and statutory authorities seems to be pretty good, and is certainly superior to those of other large public sector employers. The Commission absolutely refutes any suggestion that it has instructed RSI cases to be referred to a psychiatrist. Obviously as a result of this dispute that allegation will have to be investigated, but the Commission absolutely refutes it.

The problem is being discussed today at the State level between management and union representatives, and the only issue now of apparent concern relates to rest breaks. Since this issue has national implications, it is also being discussed today between the Commission's central office and the union's Federal representatives. The Minister for Health informs me that no difficulty is expected in achieving a satisfactory resolution. There has been no significant delay in Medicare claims processing as a result of this dispute. In fact processing has been operating for some time within the five-day turnaround which the Commission set as its operational objective, and it is expected that that five-day turnaround will continue.