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Efficiency can't trump safety

Candace Carnahan gave an inspiring speech in Charlottetown
City Hall in Charlottetown
City Hall in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Wikipedia

By Stuart Rudner

This week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Charlottetown in order to give a presentation at the WCB Workplace Health & Safety Conference. Hopefully, people found my presentation on marijuana in the workplace to be useful, but I have to say, I was truly inspired by the closing keynote given by Candace Carnahan.

Carnahan is a living example of what happens when people and organizations do not follow proper safety policies and procedures. As a 21-year-old student working in a pulp mill, she lost her leg as a result of a completely avoidable "accident." She now spends a lot of time giving presentations on the importance of workplace safety.

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of safety policies and the best way to enforce them. However, my perspective is driven by employment law concerns. Carnahan’s presentation in Prince Edward Island was a reminder that the reason for such policies goes well beyond the ability to discipline and dismiss employees; those policies should be in place in order to protect employees. As Carnahan repeated, one injury or fatality is too many. Companies that brag about "only three deaths" last year ignore the fact that this means that three people did not return home to their families at the end of their workday. Three families lost their loved ones, and will never see them again.

Interestingly, as I review every just cause decision for the purpose of updating my book, You’re Fired! Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, I noted that courts and arbitrators tend to be less tolerant of policy breaches where those breaches relate to safety. That is encouraging, as it indicates a clear focus on worker safety.

What is important is that employers ensure that they not only have appropriate policies and procedures in place, but that they enforce them. In Carnahan’s situation, which occurred many years ago, there were guards for the machine which almost killed her — but they were not being used. There were probably also policies which said that workers should not step over the conveyor belt as she did but, as she told us, everyone did it. She didn’t think twice about doing so, and it almost cost her life. It did cost her a leg.

Carnahan also described an incident early in her time with this employer, when she was going through safety training. She was paired up with an experienced worker, and was being shown how to use the “guillotine” — a massive, heavy blade that came quickly down. When she said she would lock out the machine before approaching it, as she had been trained, he discouraged her from doing so, explaining that she would be doing that “a hundred times a day.”

The implication was that it would be a waste of time. Carnahan compared the pressure to ignore safety procedures with peer pressure at school. And as a student employee, she was not comfortable pushing back when told by this experienced worker that she need not follow the safety procedures in place. As a result, she went over and reached into the guillotine without locking out the machinery first. Fortunately, she was not hurt.

It is not uncommon for senior workers to ignore safety procedures for the sake of expediency. As Carnahan points out, this type of behaviour can be seen in all aspects of life; people continue to text while driving, and to drive too fast, even though they realize the risks. This leads to completely preventable injuries and deaths.

Carnahan’s energy was contagious, and her point really hit home: Taking shortcuts for the sake of expediency can lead to injury and death. It’s not worth it. I would take this opportunity to remind employers that they must ensure that proper safety policies and procedures are in place, and to discipline those who do not follow them.

At the same time, I want to remind employees that they must follow safety policies and procedures, even if ignoring them would be more efficient, or they have always done things that way. Otherwise, they may not only face discipline or dismissal, they may be risking their own lives or the lives of their colleagues.

Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner is a founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @CanadianHRLaw. He can be reached at srudner@rudnermacdonald.com.
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