We are often asked whether post-accident fixes or improvements by an employer will be held against it if occupational health and safety charges are laid. For example, if an employer puts a guard on a machine after an employee was injured on the machine, will the court see the installation of the guard as an admission that the machine was not properly guarded?
Employers sometimes feel that they are caught between implementing the fix and risking having it be seen as an admission of liability, or not implementing the fix and risking a higher fine if convicted or being charged with violating a government order to fix the machine. Of course, most employers will be motivated to do what is right and install a fix if needed for safety reasons, regardless of whether that increases the risk of charges or fines; however, the possible risks should be considered. In some cases, quick implementation of the safety fix could actually help avoid charges.
It appears from the caselaw that post-accident safety fixes will, generally, not be considered an admission that an employer violated a safety rule, but may be considered by a court in determining whether the employer exercised due diligence (took all reasonable steps to prevent the violation) or had knowledge of the hazard. For example, the installation of a guard after an accident will likely not be an admission that a guard should have been in place, but it will be relevant to whether the employer, before the accident, took all reasonable steps to ensure that the machine was properly guarded.
In the recent case of R. v. Reliable Wood Shavings Inc., 2013 ONCJ 518, the court stated, “I believe that I can look at post accident conduct in assessing what was reasonable in all of the circumstances . . . What I cannot do is treat them as an admission of liability.”
On the plus-side, post-accident fixes will often lead to lower fines if a company is convicted of a safety offence, as the court will see the employer’s proactive safety fix as a sign of the employer’s commitment to safety. The cost of the fix will often also be considered by the court in setting the amount of the fine.
In one case, the Ontario Food Terminal Board made changes and modifications to the roadways within its facility, including the installation of several stop signs, concrete barriers, and signs around the area where the accident had occurred, after a workplace accident that eventually led to the worker’s death. While the OFTB was convicted of safety offences and fined $65,000, the Justice of the Peace did not view the post-accident actions as admissions of guilt or negligence. The court held that subsequent improvements by a defendant are not a basis for a finding of liability for safety offences, but will be considered in determining whether the employer exercised due diligence or had prior knowledge of the hazard.
An employer should consider, when faced with an accident, how post-accident fixes or improvements could be viewed by the court if the employer is charged. The question is usually not whether to implement the fix, but how to do it in a way that maximizes safety while minimizing legal risk. Advice from an occupational health and safety lawyer should be obtained, and if possible the work should be documented in a manner that confirms that it is not an admission of liability.