Making the call on whether to fire an employee for violating your company’s safety rules can be tough. Add state workers’ comp law and federal family leave law, and things can get even more complicated.
Robert Peterson was a material handler at Exide Technologies in Salina, KS. One day while driving a forklift through the plant to transport pallets of batteries, he hit a pole, causing batteries to fall, break and spill acid. Peterson’s head struck the forklift’s rack, causing him head, neck and back injuries. He was taken to a hospital where he received stitches and was released.
Exide placed Peterson on 10 days of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. During that time, Peterson’s immediate supervisor conducted an investigation into the forklift crash.
The supervisor documented the crash with photographs and concluded Peterson was “going rather fast” at the time.
The company’s Human Resources Manager and Plant Manager reviewed the investigation results and Peterson’s personnel file to decide whether discipline was necessary.
Peterson’s file contained three written warnings: one for damage to batteries caused by “careless material handling,” one for unauthorized use of machinery and one for an unspecified safety policy violation. The file also noted Peterson had previously run a forklift into a pole. Plus, in the month before the forklift crash, Peterson received a “performance expectation” memo which noted areas for improvement including, “must drive under control at all times, including maintaining a safe speed.”
After review, the plant manager decided to fire Peterson four days into his FMLA leave.
Peterson filed a lawsuit, alleging retaliation for exercising his workers’ comp rights and in violation of the FMLA.
Exide said it fired Peterson for the legitimate reason that he violated company safety policy. The company’s employee manual lists offenses which can lead to discharge, including “disregard of safety rules.”
The policy manual listed steps in progressive discipline: first written warning, second written warning, indefinite suspension and discharge. Peterson argued that the company disregarded its own manual by not going through the listed steps in its progressive discipline policy.
However, the company covered its bases. Its manual also stated, “The extent to which progressive discipline is imposed is in the sole and exclusive discretion of management.”
The court’s decision: Peterson failed to produce evidence to undermine Exide’s explanation that it fired him for violating safety policy.
The company won, not in small part because it followed safety and HR rules you hear about so often: have policies, communicate those policies to employees, document.
Is it reassuring to you that good companies can protect themselves and their employees by firing a worker who is a safety risk? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
(Peterson v. Exide Technologies, United States Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, No. 11-3077, 4/10/12)