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Efficiency can’t trump safety

Human Rights | Policies and Procedures | Workplace Safety

Candace Carnahan gave an inspiring speech in Charlottetown

This week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Charlottetown in order to give a presentation at the WCB Workplace Health & Safety Conference. Hopefully, people found my presentation on marijuana in the workplace to be useful, but I have to say, I was truly inspired by the closing keynote given by Candace Carnahan.

Carnahan is a living example of what happens when people and organizations do not follow proper safety policies and procedures. As a 21-year-old student working in a pulp mill, she lost her leg as a result of a completely avoidable “accident.” She now spends a lot of time giving presentations on the importance of workplace safety.

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of safety policies and the best way to enforce them. However, my perspective is driven by employment law concerns. Carnahan’s presentation in Prince Edward Island was a reminder that the reason for such policies goes well beyond the ability to discipline and dismiss employees; those policies should be in place in order to protect employees. As Carnahan repeated, one injury or fatality is too many. Companies that brag about “only three deaths” last year ignore the fact that this means that three people did not return home to their families at the end of their workday. Three families lost their loved ones, and will never see them again.

Interestingly, as I review every just cause decision for the purpose of updating my book, You’re Fired! Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, I noted that courts and arbitrators tend to be less tolerant of policy breaches where those breaches relate to safety. That is encouraging, as it indicates a clear focus on worker safety.

What is important is that employers ensure that they not only have appropriate policies and procedures in place, but that they enforce them. In Carnahan’s situation, which occurred many years ago, there were guards for the machine which almost killed her — but they were not being used. There were probably also policies which said that workers should not step over the conveyor belt as she did but, as she told us, everyone did it. She didn’t think twice about doing so, and it almost cost her life. It did cost her a leg.

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