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A Truly Poisoned Work Environment – Arbitrator Upholds Discharge of Employee Who Spiked Office Water Cooler with Bleach

In what can only be described as a victory for common sense, an arbitrator recently upheld the discharge of a 27 year employee who was found responsible for spiking the office water cooler with chlorine bleach.

On September 12, 2011, an employee reported to his supervisor that the water from the office water cooler had a “strong chlorine smell” and a “very hard taste”. In reviewing the surveillance video on the day in question, the Grievor is seen exiting his office with an empty water cooler jug, entering the chemical storage room and then leaving the chemical storage room and walking back to his office with a chlorine bleach jug in his hand. As he re-enters his office, the Grievor is seen placing his hand on the cap of the chlorine bleach jug. The Grievor later exits his office with the chlorine bleach jug in his hand. He ultimately returns to his office with a full jug of water for the cooler.

When initially confronted about the situation, the Grievor denied that he had caused the contamination of the water cooler but volunteered no information about why he had obtained the bleach from the chemical storage room. However, in his subsequent meetings with investigators and through his testimony at the hearing, the Grievor’s story evolved to the point where he alleged that he had poured the bleach into two cups – one to be used later in the day to clean some shelves in his office and the other to pour into a dumpster located outside his office in order to kill its odour.

At the hearing, the Grievor’s supervisor rejected the Grievor’s explanation noting that it made no sense for the Grievor to clean the shelves since they were not dirty and they were being dismantled to be taken out of the building. He further testified that he never saw the Grievor use a cup to pour chlorine breach into the dumpster.

In his decision, the Arbitrator found that the Grievor’s testimony lacked credibility. In the Arbitrator’s view, “the Grievor’s many actions, as witnessed on the video and as described in his testimony, when taken together simply defy logic and do not make sense”. As a result, the Arbitrator ruled that it was more likely than not that he was the cause of the chlorine bleach contamination of the office drinking water cooler. With respect to penalty, the Arbitrator held that “…the level of mistruths and evasiveness displayed by the employee, as well as his failure to take responsibility for his actions, irreparably harmed the employee-employer relationship.” There was therefore no basis for the Arbitrator to interfere with the Employer’s decision to dismiss the Grievor for cause.

This case is a good reminder of the importance that credibility will play when an adjudicator is asked to determine which version of events is more likely to have occurred. In conducting investigations, employers should ensure that they take detailed statements from those involved so as to “nail down” the alleged offender’s story. Should the alleged offender later change his or her story, the employer will be in a good position to impeach the employee’s credibility.

Knox v. Treasury Board (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), 2017 PSLREB 40.

 

 

A Truly Poisoned Work Environment – Arbitrator Upholds Discharge of Employee Who Spiked Office Water Cooler with Bleach

Not Quite an Eye for an Eye – Judge rules that Employee’s “Kick in the Butt” Excuses Co-Worker’s Punch in the Mouth

Does a “kick in the butt” excuse a punch in the mouth? That was the question facing the Court in the recent case of Li v Furguson, 2013 CanLII 91746 (Ont. Sm. Cl. Ct.).

Peng Li and Winston Furguson worked in the shipping and receiving department of a furniture company. Li and Furguson’s coexistence was initially uneventful; however, their relationship had begun to disintegrate following allegations by Li that Furguson was stealing from the company.

On April 19, 2011, things between Li and Furguson reached a boiling point. After searching for Furguson throughout the warehouse, Li finally found his target and confronted him. What happened next was a source of disagreement between the parties, although the judge adopted the following facts. Li began speaking very closely to Furguson; so close that spit was transferred to Furguson’s face, albeit unintentionally. As Furguson tried to break free, Li kicked Furguson in the “butt” with his steel-toe boots. Furguson then wheeled and punched Li twice – one blow was inconsequential, the other was not as it resulted in Li incurring over $7,000.00 in costs for restorative dental services.

At trial, Li argued that he was entitled to damages from Furguson for the tort of battery. However, in the judge’s view, Li’s actions amounted to implied consent to the battery:

Having insulted, berated and confined a person at close quarters, then scuffled with them and kicked them I cannot see how a reasonable person could maintain that a punch or two in return was beyond their reasonable contemplation as being with the scope of what they had implicitly consented to.

 
In addition, the judge held that Li had provoked Furguson by kicking him. Although provocation was not a complete answer to Li’s claim of battery, it nonetheless operated to mitigate the damages that Li had in turn claimed.

In light of these facts, the judge dismissed Li’s claim in its entirety.

It is important to note that while Li had originally brought an action against his employer in which he made a number of claims, including one for “wrongful dismissal”, this action was discontinued before trial. Regardless, apart from the civil liability above, the altercation between Li and Furguson would certainly attract the attention of any employer’s workplace violence policy and potentially lead to discipline.

Li v Furguson, 2013 CanLII 91746 (Ont. Sm. Cl. Ct.)

Not Quite an Eye for an Eye – Judge rules that Employee’s “Kick in the Butt” Excuses Co-Worker’s Punch in the Mouth

SCC Rules on Random Alcohol Testing at Pulp and Paper Mill

On June 14, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada released its highly anticipated decision in Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30, v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd., 2013 SCC 34 (http://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2013/2013scc34/2013scc34.pdf). In its decision, the Supreme Court of Canada signaled for the first time that employers in safety-sensitive work environments may be justified in implementing random alcohol testing when there is a safety risk in the workplace due to alcohol, such as evidence of a general problem with substance abuse in the workplace.

Facts:

In 2006, Irving Pulp and Paper (“Irving”) adopted a new policy on alcohol and drug use at its kraft paper mill in Saint John, New Brunswick. The mill is acknowledged to be a dangerous workplace with malfunctions carrying the potential for “catastrophic failures”. As part of the new workplace policy, Irving instituted a random alcohol testing program whereby 10% of the employees in safety sensitive positions were to be randomly selected for unannounced breathalyzer testing over the course of a year. In the 15 years which preceded the introduction of this policy, there were only eight documented incidents of alcohol consumption or impairment at the mill. Moreover, there were no accidents, injuries or near misses connected to alcohol.

On March 13, 2006, mill employee Perley Day, was randomly selected to submit to a breathalyzer test. As Mr. Day does not consume alcohol, his test returned a blood alcohol level of zero. Shortly thereafter, the Union filed a policy grievance alleging that the random alcohol testing component of the new alcohol and drug policy was unreasonable; the Union did not challenge the other aspects of the policy.

The arbitration board found that although random alcohol testing may be reasonable in some circumstances, there was not sufficient evidence in this case of an existing problem with alcohol use in the workplace. On judicial review, the Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick set aside the arbitration decision. The New Brunswick Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal.

The SCC’s Decision:

While there was no debate about the safety-sensitive nature of the workplace, the majority held that the dangerousness of a workplace is only the beginning of the inquiry, “[w]hat has been additionally required is evidence of enhanced safety risks, such as evidence of a general problem with substance abuse in the workplace.” That said, Justice Abella, on behalf of the majority, went on to say that “[t]his is not to say that an employer can never impose random testing in a dangerous workplace. If it represents a proportionate response in light of both legitimate safety concerns and privacy interests, it may well be justified.” Considering the particular facts before them in this case, the Court found that random alcohol testing was not justified in the context of the Irving paper mill in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The three judges in dissent noted that an employer should not be required to wait for a serious incident of loss to take proactive steps to mitigate risk.

Barbara B. Johnston and April Kosten represented the Construction Owners Association of Alberta, Construction Labour Relations – An Alberta Association and Enform at the Supreme Court of Canada. Please feel free to contact Barbara or April directly if you would like to discuss the implications of this decision.

SCC Rules on Random Alcohol Testing at Pulp and Paper Mill

Reviewing Ontario’s Workplace Violence and Harassment Law

In this article, Andy Pushalik reviews employer’s duties as they relate to workplace violence and harassment in Ontario.

On June 15, 2010, Ontario’s workplace violence and workplace harassment law came into effect. With this implementation deadline looming, employers rushed to take the necessary steps to ensure their compliance.

Reprinted by permission of Carswell, a division of Thomson Reuters Canada Limited.

To read the full article as published in Legal Alert, Vol. 31, No. 2, May 2012, click here.

Reviewing Ontario’s Workplace Violence and Harassment Law

The Heat is Definitely On

Southern Ontario’s summer is off to a scorching start. With temperatures expected to top 36 degrees today and the humidex approaching mid-40s, Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer has extended its Extreme Heat Alert.

In conditions like these, the Ontario Ministry of Labour advises that employers must ensure that they are taking proper precautions to protect their workers from suffering heat-induced illnesses. To help employers, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour has published a Heat Stress Guideline which includes a number of tips on how to stay safe and cool during these hot summer months. In addition, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has also made available on its website a number of resources about the dangers of heat exposure and how to prevent it.

Ministry of Labour – Heat Stress Guideline: http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pubs/gl_heat.php

WSIB – Prevent Heat Stress: http://www.wsib.on.ca/en/community/WSIB/230/ArticleDetail/24338?vgnextoid=f062e35c819d7210VgnVCM100000449c710aRCRD.

The Heat is Definitely On