When a molehill becomes a mountain

Disciplining a good employee who makes an innocent mistake with serious consequences

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Sometimes a seemingly innocuous mistake can have serious consequences. So does that make it more than innocuous? This is something employers have to consider when dealing with employee misconduct.

Last year, an employee of an agricultural product manufacturer in Winnipeg was making a herbicide in the company’s plant. The process required pouring water into the mixer before adding the chemicals. The water was necessary because it served as a suppressor to the chemicals, which would form a noxious cloud and an explosion risk if mixed without water.

The employee followed the procedure for adding the ingredients to the mixer. However, after he hooked up the water hose, he forgot to flip a switch to start the water flow. As a result, the water didn’t flow into the mixer. The employee didn’t check to see that the water was in there before adding the chemicals, and a vapour cloud developed. A co-worker came into contact with the cloud, but he was wearing protective gear and was unharmed. Once he noticed what was happening, the employee quickly acted by checking the water and flipping the switch to the hose. Soon water filled the mixer and the vapour cloud dissipated. The employee acknowledged his mistake and accepted responsibility, but was suspended for three days without pay.

The employee had worked for the company for several years with a spotless record and his actions in fixing the situation, as well as his remorse and co-operation with the employer’s investigation, led to the union grieving the suspension. It argued it was a simple case of momentary forgetfulness and the employee otherwise followed proper procedure. However, an arbitrator upheld the suspension, finding the effect of the mistake was a dangerous situation.

So this was a case of a good employee, with good service, who followed procedure and, in the wake of the incident, was up-front and apologetic. He made one minor mistake of flipping a switch, something that could happen to anyone. But, as both the employer and arbitrator pointed out, that otherwise minor mistake created a dangerous situation — a noxious vapour cloud and a risk of explosion in the plant.

While nothing that severe happened, a worst-case scenario could have resulted in injury — and possibly death — of several employees, as well as damage to the employer’s facility. So ultimately, the potential serious consequences of the mistake determined the discipline, rather than the nature of the employee’s misconduct.

How much should the potential consequences of misconduct weigh in the determination of discipline, versus the nature of the misconduct? In many cases, a good employee with no prior problems who makes an innocent, unintentional mistake might not even warrant discipline at all and it might not be worth it to upset an otherwise good and productive employee. But in a safety sensitive workplace, things can be a lot different and an employer has to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again by making an impression on the employee – and other employees as well. What’s the best approach to such a situation?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

Latest stories