Question: Is an employer liable for a health and safety violation that is the result of an employee’s choice to refuse to follow company policy (such as wearing protective headgear or following a certain procedure)?
Answer: In general, and under occupational health and safety legislation across Canada, an employer has an obligation to ensure — insofar as it is reasonably practicable to do so — the health and safety of its workers while they are engaged in the work of the employer.
Where a health and safety violation occurs, the employer may be charged with an offence. Fortunately for the employer, there may be a defence to the charges if the employee refused to follow the employer’s rules or instructions. In this situation, the employer may argue it took all reasonable care under the circumstances and, as such, the violation was unavoidable. This is known as the due diligence defence.
This defence exists because even if an employer has taken all reasonable care with respect to health and safety issues, it nonetheless cannot prevent breaches of occupational health and safety standards when an employee either willfully, negligently or inadvertently commits a prohibited act or fails to perform a mandatory act.
For example, if an employee chooses not to wear protective headgear in spite of a clear and well-implemented company policy requiring its use, the employer will rely on the due diligence defence to argue it should not be held liable as it did all it could to comply.
However, the employer’s liability is not simply extinguished if an employee refuses to follow clearly established and implemented company policies on safety matters.
As a part of the employer’s duty, if an employee refuses or neglects to follow safety protocol established by the employer and the employer becomes aware of the refusal or neglect, the employer is obligated to prevent the employee from continuing to work in an unsafe manner.
If the employer does not take reasonable steps to address the unsafe work conditions, it may be liable for any resulting loss. As such, the employer is generally justified in refusing to allow an employee to work in unsafe circumstances, should she refuse to comply with the rules.
The employer may also take further action in the form of discipline, depending on the type of action or omission committed and its severity.
In the 2009 Alberta case R. v. Lonkar Well Testing Ltd., an employee disobeyed a direct order to cease any further work on a pressure vessel once he had completed the assigned task, due to the possibility of physical harm to himself and others. Rather than waiting for a supervisor to return, as instructed, the employee continued to dismantle the pressure vessel and died as a result of the gases released.
The central issue in the case was the extent to which the employer had given sufficient warnings to the employee regarding the dangers of the gas vapours. Ultimately, it was decided the employer had taken all reasonable care in the circumstances.
The employee had been sufficiently warned and should have been aware of the risks involved. The defence of due diligence was established and the original conviction of the employer was quashed.
Finally, it should be noted an employee also has a duty while at work, under the relevant occupational health and safety legislation, to take reasonable care to protect her own safety and the safety of coworkers who may be affected by her actions.
Furthermore, an employee is required to comply with the direct orders of her employer in the first instance. If the employee disagrees with the employer’s order, her recourse is to challenge the validity of the order afterwards.
The only exception involves cases relating to orders that may endanger the employee’s health or safety, that require an illegal act or that expose the employee to potential legal liability.
In general, if an employee refuses to follow an employer’s safety policies, there may be legal consequences for the employee personally if injury results to that employee or a co-worker, in addition to possible disciplinary consequences.
For more information see:
• R. v. Lonkar Well Testing Ltd., 2009 CarswellAlta 823 (Alta. Q.B.).
Brian Kenny is a partner at MacPherson Leslie and Tyerman in Regina. He can be reached at (306) 347-8421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.