Safety hazard outweighs owning up to misconduct

Worker suspended for absent-minded mistake

A Manitoba employee’s mistake that caused a safety hazard in the workplace was worthy of a two-day suspension, an arbitrator has ruled.

Scott Grant was an operator in the Winnipeg plant of Interprovincial Cooperative (ICL), a manufacturer of agricultural products such as herbicides and pesticides. Grant was initially hired in 1998 as a production worker and was later promoted to the position of operator.

On Jan. 25, 2012, Grant was formulating an herbicide out of raw materials including a chemical solution called DMA, an acid and water. DMA was a dangerous chemical that required careful handling and the close following of the formulation procedure for the herbicide. Water had to be added to the mixer — a receptacle in which the ingredients were combined to make the herbicide — first, so it would suppress the chemical reaction when the DMA and the other ingredient were mixed together. Without water, the chemicals would form a toxic vapour cloud that could cause skin and eye burns and heat the mixer to the point where an explosion could occur.

Grant had to connect a hose from a water pipeline to the mixer in order to get the required amount of water into the mixer. He had another worker assisting, but he was in charge of overseeing the process including the adding of the ingredients. Grant connected the hose and opened the valve through which the water would flow. However, he forgot to switch on the water pump and the water didn’t start flowing.

Grant went to the lab, not realizing the water wasn’t flowing through the hose. When he returned, he believed there was enough water in the mixer and instructed the co-worker to add the other ingredient while he added the DMA. Almost immediately, a vapour cloud formed and the co-worker ran over to Grant to warn him. Frightened, Grant ran to the supervisor’s office and alerted the supervisor.

The DMA odour had become strong at this point and Grant was worried there was a rupture. He checked the mixer to make sure more DMA wasn’t getting in and realized the water pump hadn’t been activated. He quickly turned it on and the water flowed into the mixer, stabilizing the ingredients. Within 20 minutes, the vapour cloud dissipated and the danger was over. There was no damage and the co-worker, who had been surrounded by the cloud, was fine because he had been wearing protective clothing and safety equipment.

ICL investigated the incident, with Grant’s co-operation and, on Feb. 1, 2012, the company suspended him for three days without pay for a “major rule violation”: failing to observe regulations for safety, equipment operation, accident prevention and fire prevention. ICL also considered that Grant had received a one-day suspension in 2009 for violating the same rule when he had failed to wear a face shield for work that required it.

The union grieved the suspension, arguing Grant had made a simple, forgetful mistake and it was a minor violation as he had followed the rest of the procedure properly, including trying to remedy the situation as soon as he could. It also noted he was forthcoming and co-operative with ICL’s investigation and the suspension was out of line with discipline against other employees for similar misconduct.

The arbitrator noted that Grant could have accessed information on the mixer’s scale that would have told him the water hadn’t been added and his failure to check before the chemicals were added compounded the error. However, he noted Grant admitted to his mistake and accepted responsibility for it.

In the end, regardless of Grant’s intentions and actions following his error, the arbitrator found Grant’s actions created a dangerous situation with a toxic vapour cloud and the risk of an explosion. As a result of the mistake, ICL’s property and the safety of its employees were placed at risk. In addition, the mistake was in a “basic step of the production process” and any violation of rules related to safety was a major violation, said the arbitrator.

“The safety and well-being of employees is of fundamental importance, and a breach of a requirement related to safety, regardless of whether intentional or not, is a matter of importance, which should result in consequences for the party committing the breach,” said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator also found the circumstances were different from other examples of misconduct due to the danger involved and suspension was specifically mentioned in ICL’s discipline policy for major violations. Though Grant admitted his mistake, he wasn’t able to explain it beyond “absentmindedness,” which was a cause for concern for ICL.

The arbitrator found the three-day suspension was appropriate and dismissed the grievance. See Interprovincial Cooperative Ltd. and CEP, Local 341 (Grant), Re, 2013 CarswellMan 18 (Man. Arb. Bd.).

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