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What is the Difference Between an “Injury” and “Disease” for Commonwealth Injury Claims?

Tim White writes about two important definitions for injured Commonwealth workers seeking compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (SRCA).


Whether you have suffered an “injury” or “disease” can have a significant impact on your claim. It makes a considerable difference in determining the extent to which your employment contributed to your condition in order for it to be deemed as work caused.  If your claim has been rejected on the basis that it is not work related, it is important to seek legal advice about whether or not that decision is correct. Issues of causation are complex and can be influenced heavily by what questions are asked of medical practitioners and their response to those questions.

What is an injury?

Generally an injury is something that has occurred by way of an accident or due to a sudden event or incident. For example, a lower back disc injury caused by a fall at work or lifting something heavy giving rise to a lower back problem.

However, it is not just physical conditions that are deemed to be an injury under the SRCA. Certainly on occasions a psychological condition has been accepted.  Particularly where the psychological condition has arisen as a consequence of an obvious, work-related event and the psychological symptoms have occurred shortly after an incident at work.

For example, someone witnessing a traumatic incident or event which gives rise to a post traumatic stress disorder, with the symptoms that follow shortly after, is likely to be considered an injury under the SRCA.

What is considered a disease?

A disease is generally a condition of gradual onset, having developed over a reasonably extended period of time.  For example a back injury that has arisen as a result of prolonged lifting, carrying or bending at work, which causes degenerative changes in a person’s spine, may be considered a disease.  Equally a shoulder condition that has developed gradually over a period of time due to repetitive activities or repetitive use of a person’s upper limb, where the symptoms have developed or worsened gradually over a period of many years, is likely to be considered a disease.

Like an injury, both physical and psychological conditions, depending upon the circumstances in which they develop, can both be assessed as a disease under the SRCA.  It is largely dependent on the specific circumstances of the worker’s employment and the medical condition suffered.

How does the SRCA treat an injury and a disease differently?

With an injury, it is only necessary that the condition has arisen out of or in the course of your employment.  That means that a person’s work duties only need to be a contributing factor towards the development of the injuries.  There can be other factors contributing to the injury, but work must have a material contribution towards the occurrence of the injury.

In short, it is a relatively low threshold that needs to be met in order for your employment to be deemed a contributing factor towards your injury.  If your injury has arisen out of or in the course of your employment it will be accepted as a work condition and from that you will be entitled to various compensation entitlements.

On the other hand, for a disease, your employment must be a substantial contributing factor towards the development of the condition in order for it to be deemed work caused. This is a much higher threshold. There have been numerous cases relating to what this requirement actually involves, but it is clear that the threshold for establishing that your work has caused a disease is certainly higher than an injury.

Injury compensation, Telstra workers, Commonwealth/Comcare


The difference between your work condition being classified as an injury or a disease is important and will have a considerable impact on whether or not your condition is accepted as being work related.  These issues of causation are highly complex and therefore make it very important to seek legal advice if your claim has been rejected on the basis of it not being work caused.  Given the compensation entitlements that follow your condition being accepted as being work related, there are often considerable financial implications if your claim remains rejected.



Tim White is a Partner at leading Australian law firm, Tindall Gask Bentley. For advice about your compensation claim, contact Tim at your local TGB office or register online here.

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