Setting co-worker on fire not cause for dismissal?

Employee set fire to co-worker's safety vest as a prank and customer was injured putting it out, but termination was too harsh
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/18/2013

Setting a co-worker on fire sounds like it could be cause for dismissal. But as Madeleine Loewenberg, a lawyer at Norton Rose in Toronto, recently pointed out in Canadian Employment Law Today, a termination in that situation went up in smoke.

As a prank, Dryco Drywall Supplies worker Mark Sobieski in British Columbia set fire to some fabric hanging from the back of a co-worker’s safety vest. Although he extinguished the flame, it reignited.

Sobieski extinguished the flames again but walked away to help a customer and they reignited.

The worker was unaware his vest was on fire, and a customer beat out the flames with his hands, suffering burns and blisters on his hands that took two weeks to heal.

Dryco failed to see the humour in the prank and terminated Sobieski — who had 32 years’ service and held the position of foreman — for cause.

But an arbitrator reinstated the worker, citing several factors, including his long service record, clean record and his immediate apologies to all involved. Sobieski was instead given a lengthy, unpaid suspension.

Dryco’s safety policy stated horseplay “is forbidden and may result in disciplinary action.” But the use of the word “may” was an acknowledgment that termination would not be the appropriate response in all cases, according to the arbitrator.

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