Slaughterhouse employee gets cut

Worker's defiance against manager affected production standards

This instalment of You Make the Call involves a meat processing plant employee who was fired for not ensuring food animals were killed humanely.

The company operated a food production plant in British Columbia. Legislation and company regulations were clear and specific about how the animals should be handled and killed in a humane way.

Animals were sorted by size and processed on a conveyor that went through a series of automated stations that first stunned and then slaughtered them. The stunner was an electric plate in a saline solution that had to be adjusted depending on the size of the animals in each lot. The company had a standard that required less than one per cent of the animals to miss being stunned properly. The humane treatment of the animals was a priority in the operation and this was made clear in company policies.

The employee was an electrician who had worked for the company as a maintenance mechanic since 2007. On April 26, 2012, he was on the night shift on part of the production line where the animals entered the line.

During the shift, the production manager noticed the stunner was too high and radioed the employee. The employee claimed the reception was poor and he was in a noisy area, so all he could make out was “lower stunner.” He couldn’t find the manager, so he went to the stunner and saw it was as he had left it, so he moved on without doing a count of unstunned animals. The production manager disagreed that reception was poor on the radio call.

The production manager found the employee at another station and asked him if he had adjusted the stunner. The employee responded loudly, “Why? I do my job the best I can.” The employee claimed the manager answered “Because I told you to do so” in an angry tone.

The manager pointed out the animals dragging at the stunner and said it would have to be lowered. The employee grabbed the adjustment button and, rather than slowly lowering and checking to see the effect, just kept lowering it. The manager said to stop and the employee replied, “Now you want me to stop?”

Once the manager was satisfied, she left. The employee did a count and found the number of unstunned animals was outside the acceptable limit. However, he decided not to adjust the stunner on his own.

The manager later did a count and found it was within the limits. However, she was surprised to see the employee had recorded high numbers on his last count. She testified when she asked the employee, he said he knew his job and if the number of unstunned animals was too high, he would adjust the stunner. The employee testified he said he was afraid to adjust the stunner and didn’t know what to do.

The production managers decided discipline was warranted because of the employee’s attitude, lack of co-operation, and violation of company policies by failing to adjust the stunner when the count was too high. The employee was given a written warning indicating further incidents would result in discipline “up to and including dismissal.”

The next day, the plant manager called a meeting with the employee and the production managers. They discussed the events of the previous shift and the employee changed the number of unstunned animals he had recorded in his account. He said he wished he “had had the guts” to adjust the stunner but said he was afraid to do anything and obey what the manager ordered.

At the end of the meeting, the employee was dismissed for failing to inform the manager of the unacceptable number of unstunned animals, take corrective action, or document accurate information.

The employee contested the dismissal, adding that another reason he didn’t want to adjust the stunner himself was that the manager was “experimenting” to see the results of the different stunner settings and he didn’t want to mess it up.

You Make the Call

Was dismissal too harsh?
Was there just cause for dismissal?

If you said dismissal was too harsh, you’re right. The arbitrator found the employee neglected his duty by not adjusting the stunner when he knew too many animals were going unstunned, and failing to contact anyone else to alert them.

The arbitrator found the employee became angry after being ordered to adjust the stunner more than once and felt he was being told how to do his job as he was “a skilled and experienced tradesman” who didn’t didn’t like others interfering. He adopted an attitude where he would only do something if he was directly told if that was the case. However, this approach had “negative results” that violated company policy.

The arbitrator found the employee's attempts to justify his behaviour were excuses. His claim the production manager was experimenting was simply “a recent fabrication” and didn’t make sense given the priority the company had with the humane treatment of the animals, said the arbitrator.

However, the arbitrator determined the employee had already been disciplined for his conduct with a written warning. Though the employer claimed the dismissal was for inhumane treatment of animals and the warning was for failure to follow procedures, the arbitrator found their objectives were related. Hence, the employee was disciplined twice for the same misconduct.

The arbitrator allowed the grievance, but found trust and confidence could not be restored to the employment relationship, ruling out reinstatement. The two sides were ordered to negotiate the amount of appropriate damages. See XYZ Co. and U., Re, 2013 CarswellBC 3598 (B.C. Arb.).

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