Breach of workplace safety rules is a serious matter, but not always serious enough to justify termination.  The fact that the employee’s violation creates a safety hazard is an important factor, but only one among many factors that a Court will consider when deciding whether a termination is justified. 

That is the lesson that can be drawn from a recent Ontario Court of Appeal case, Plester v. PolyOne Canada Inc., 2013 ONCA 47.  The employer, PolyOne, is a manufacturing company.  Its manufacturing processes are complex and potentially dangerous.  PolyOne had invested a great deal in creating a strong culture of workplace safety, including the creation of “Cardinal Rules of Safety”.  Two of those rules of safety included that machinery being worked on be “locked out”, and that employees immediately report any violations of safety policy.

A line supervisor, Plester, who had worked for PolyOne for 17 years, failed to lock out a machine before attempting to fix it. The lock out process is an important safety measure to ensure a machine is properly shut off and cannot start up again during maintenance.

Plester delayed reporting his violation until the next day, by which point it had already been reported by his subordinates.

While acknowledging that an employer’s ability to respond strongly and swiftly to violation of workplace safety rules was important, the Court of Appeal held that termination was not warranted in this particular case.  Noting the long and relatively unblemished service record of the employee, the fact that he intended to report his violation, and the fact that his mistake did not appear to have put any other persons at risk, the Court held dismissal was not warranted.

The Court was not persuaded by the employer’s argument that the conduct was such a serious violation of trust that a continued employment relationship was impossible.

This decision suggests that a violation of workplace safety does not override the contextual analysis undertaken by the courts in assessing whether the termination was justified, in all of the circumstances. The employee’s history, record, length of service, and the consequences resulting from the safety violation will also be taken into account.

Even in the face of a relatively serious safety violation, employers should turn their mind to these and any other relevant factors when assessing whether termination is warranted.