Failure to follow standard procedure worthy of demotion, suspension

Worker didn't complete sheet recording regular safety checks of dangerous equipment

An Ontario arbitrator has upheld a worker’s suspension and demotion for not following his employer’s standard operating procedure for dealing with dangerous chemicals and equipment.

The worker was a supervisor with Invista Canada, a manufacturer of industrial nylon in Kingston, Ont. The manufacturing process involved putting raw materials under pressure and keeping them in a molten state before combining and stretching them into filaments. As they cool, a vent condenser system draws contaminated molten material, which is flammable and explosive if not handled correctly.

Because of the dangerous material used in the manufacturing process, Invista made significant efforts to develop a “culture of compliance” for its standard operating procedures (SOP), which helped to control risk.

The SOP included routine checks of temperature, discharge pressure and level in large receivers for the molten material and the vent condensers, which were recorded on a check sheet. The checks were supposed to be done every two hours. Check sheets were maintained for 30 days and were key to monitoring the system and identifying potentially dangerous situations.

After being hired as a spinning technician in 1998, the worker progressed through three levels of polymer technician with good performance reviews. Though he received a disciplinary notice in May 2011 for deviating from SOP with regards to opening a valve of the molten material, he continued in his position.

On Aug. 29, 2012, the worker was on the job with a partner. Normal protocol dictated that each employee would alternate doing the required checks of the receivers and vents and record it on the check sheet. The vent condenser wasn’t operational so only the receivers needed to be checked.

Midway through the shift, the supervisor discovered the check sheet had not been completed on the previous three two-hour intervals. The worker said he had made the required checks but hadn’t recorded them on the check sheet because he thought it wasn’t necessary without the vent condenser operating.

The supervisor didn’t accept this explanation, as the molten material still filled the receivers even when the vent condenser wasn’t on and it still needed to be checked and recorded — something the worker should have known since he worked in the polymer area for three years. The worker and his partner were advised to fill out the check sheet going forward.

In a followup discussion, the worker acknowledged he had to record his checks every two hours and made “a bad decision” by neglecting to do just that. However, the worker also said “chatter” among his co-workers and an “impression from a senior operator” led him to believe it wasn’t necessary to follow the SOP. In addition, the worker claimed the crew on the shift before him didn’t complete the check sheet but he didn’t want to advise the supervisor before speaking with them — he didn’t want to be a “rat.”

Because this was the second time the worker hadn’t followed the SOP, Invista decided to suspend him for one day and demote him to his former position of spinning technician — which had no elements of self-management and no duties involving chemicals.

The union did not dispute the suspension but challenged the demotion as too harsh a penalty for an error in judgment the worker immediately acknowledged.

The arbitrator noted that there was “little doubt the union and its members are well aware of the employer’s efforts to obtain compliance with its safety standards.”

Though the worker characterized his misconduct as “an error in judgment,” he compounded the problem with an excuse that didn’t make sense — the vent condensers were off-line so he didn’t think it was necessary to record the checks — or follow the SOP. This excuse fell by the wayside when the worker said other employees indicated it didn’t need to be done, so he went along with it — a “cavalier attitude” that took the worker’s misconduct “to a new level,” said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator found the collective agreement recognized demotion as an accepted form of discipline and the failure to follow the SOP is misconduct worthy of serious discipline, particularly for a second offence, and also served the purpose of a deterrent to other employees for similar misconduct.

“It is not acceptable when dealing with matters of safety for the workforce to ‘go rogue’ in respect of very clear directions regarding policies and procedures having to do with a substance as potentially dangerous as (the molten chemical used in production),” said the arbitrator. “By not resisting the tug of group dynamics in the context of an important safety matter, the (worker) has demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness and an irresponsible attitude which undermines his competence to perform the job of polymer technician.”

The grievance was dismissed. See Invista (Canada) Co. and Kingston Independent Nylon Workers Union (Currie), Re, 2014 CarswellOnt 7160 (Ont. Arb.).

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