In a recent court case, a company argued that the law only required it to supply safety devices, not be the “watchdog of careless employees” and make sure they actually use them. Did the court buy that reasoning?
While the provide-versus-use argument involving safety equipment has been argued previously by various courts, it usually involves OSHA fines. In this case it involves a workers’ comp case.
Why? Because New Mexico workers’ comp law calls for a 10% increase in benefits to injured workers when a company’s failure to supply a safety device leads to the injury. And in a recent case, one of the points argued was whether “supply” means simply “provide” or “provide and make sure your employees use it.”
First, the details of how the injury occurred:
Sara Benavides worked as a registered nurse for Eastern New Mexico Medical Center. One day while walking into a patient’s room, she slipped and fell on a wet floor, seriously injuring her right leg, right hip, lower back and neck. She received the maximum workers’ comp benefits for temporary total disability.
Years later, Benavides was still receiving benefits. Her employer sought a permanent determination of benefits in her case. At that time, Benavides requested a 10% increase in benefits due to a failure to supply a safety device. She claimed “wet floor” signs are safety devices, and none were placed on the floor that had just been mopped by housekeeping on the day she slipped and fell.
The medical center argued that wet-floor signs aren’t safety devices and, even if they were, it regularly provided two to four of them on each housekeeping cart for its workers to use when mopping the floor.
A workers’ comp judge ruled that wet-floor signs are safety devices. However, the WCJ also ruled that the medical center had fulfilled its obligation because it supplied the signs for use. It didn’t matter that on the day Benavides fell, housekeeping didn’t set up a sign.
Benavides appealed. A state appeals court upheld the ruling. The injured nurse then took her case to the state’s supreme court.
Spirit of the law
Previous case law in New Mexico stated that a safety device is:
” … something which will lessen danger or secure safety, as something tangible, concrete, that can be seen, touched or felt – an ‘instrumentality’ – as opposed to a rule or course of conduct.”
The court noted that previous cases contained these examples of safety devices:
- goggles used to protect workers’ eyes from flying particles
- guard rails on a platform to protect workers from falling
- a gas meter to measure the presence of deadly gases
- a rear view mirror on a vehicle that allows the operator to see behind, and
- a manhole cover to protect workers from falling into an open hole.
Previous cases also noted that “courses of conduct, ordinary hand tools, such as a wrench, are not safety devices.”
After considering all the previous cases, the New Mexico Supreme Court wrote:
“We find a wet floor sign is something tangible, concrete, that can be seen, touched or felt, not a rule or course of conduct … a wet floor sign warns of a specific danger of a slippery floor, just as eye goggles protect a worker from the specific danger of flying particles … “
Next, the court had to consider the medical center’s argument that, even if the sign is a safety device, it fulfilled its requirement by supplying the signs to housekeeping workers. It was up to the workers to use them.
The medical center argued that the language in the state law didn’t make an employer the “insurer of his employees’ safety.”
The court found the medical center’s definition of “supplying” the wet floor signs to be too literal. The justices noted that they must also consider a law’s “obvious spirit or reason.”
In that vein, the court found the purpose and spirit of the law is that employers must create a safe work environment for their employees:
“We conclude that safety devices cannot effectuate their purposes if they are kept in utility closets or in storage. They must be ‘supplied’ and ‘used’ to prevent accidents. The mere fact that Employer had written policies and procedures in place and that wet floor signs were provided to custodians does not satisfy the spirit and purpose of the Act.”
Therefore, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the previous decisions and awarded Benavides the extra 10% in workers’ comp benefits.
An interesting side note: Also under New Mexico law, if a worker’s failure to use a safety device results in the same worker’s injury, the employee receives a 10% reduction in workers’ comp payments.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(Sara Benevides v. Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, Supreme Court of New Mexico, No. 34,128, 11/6/14)