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Supervisor’s Violation of Lockout “Cardinal Rule” Did not Justify Dismissal: Appeal Court

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The Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld a trial judge’s decision that an employee’s violation of a lockout rule was not just cause for dismissal.

The employer, a manufacturing company, had a strong culture of workplace safety. Its “Cardinal Rules” of safety included the requirement that employees lock out any machinery being worked on, and that employees immediately report any violations of the company’s safety policy.

Plester, a line-supervisor, attempted to fix a machine without locking it out.  He did not immediately report his violation. The next morning, he tried to dissuade subordinate employees from reporting his mistake.  However, they had already reported the violation. The company promptly fired the supervisor.

The Ontario Court of Appeal stated:

“We appreciate that an employer’s ability to respond strongly and swiftly to violations of rules designed to ensure workplace safety reinforces the importance of such rules, and promotes a culture of workplace safety. We also appreciate that a line-supervisor, such as the respondent, is generally subject to a higher standard than a line worker. And, given PolyOne’s fully warranted concerns about workplace safety, we agree with the trial judge that the respondent made a serious mistake. However, the respondent’s mistake did not appear to have put any other persons at risk, and he was a long-standing, good, hard-working employee with only minor incidents of past discipline as a line-worker, pre-dating his promotion to line-supervisor some six years before.

“Moreover, the trial judge accepted that the respondent planned to report his violation; what occurred was an intended short delay in reporting, as opposed to a suppression of a violation. We are not persuaded by PolyOne’s argument that that the respondent’s conduct was such a violation of trust that a continuing relationship was impossible.”

This decision shows that not every safety violation will be just cause for dismissal, even where the employer has a strong safety culture.  Instead, depending on the severity of the safety violation, progressive discipline may be necessary before an employer dismisses an employee for just cause.

Plester v. PolyOne Canada Inc., 2013 ONCA 47 (CanLII)