Many work accidents are preventable through training and actively managing employees. Accidents at work can be devastating to the public, employees, and the employer, not to mention the liability exposure and resulting loss of employee work time and productivity. The federal government maintains statistics on fatal accidents, as do most states. Most recently, the Monthly Labor Review reported on a “Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses,” based on national data from state and local governments. The survey noted a higher rate of injuries and illnesses in the public sector as compared to the private sector, and a higher rate of injuries and illnesses in local government workplaces, in comparison to state government. It is estimated there are approximately 1.6 million workplace injuries each year. The data is daunting.

Workplace safety numbers are impressive, but they only tell part of the story. Behind each workplace accident or injury, is the potential for employee discipline. Employees can and should be held accountable for safety violations. This month in Minnesota, two different arbitrators ruled in favor of the Employer, in two separate cases dealing with safety violations at work.

Arbitrator Martin upheld the termination of a public works employee who failed to stop for a school bus that had its flashing lights on and stop arm out. The Anoka City employee was driving a street sweeper at the time. No accident occurred and no small children were injured, but the arbitrator still upheld the employer’s decision to terminate the public works employee. He based his decision on the careful attention the City had paid to safety matters, and the safety training and policies they had adopted. The employee had a lengthy work record which included a laundry list of at least fifteen (15) past careless acts, including some intentional acts of disregarding safety rules. The Arbitrator noted there was no formula to determine discipline in safety cases “…how many events, over how much time, with what lulls require what discipline…” He did indicate the City did not have to wait for a serious accident before terminating the public works employee.

In another safety related case, Arbitrator Beens upheld the termination of a Metro Transit bus driver who had four chargeable accidents in a three year period. Almost four pages of the arbitrator’s award discuss the safety training, policies, and rules adopted by Metro Transit. A policy was in place indicating four “responsible accidents” within a three year period would result in termination. The driver had adequate notice her three previous accidents were going into her permanent file, and she elected not to grieve any of the prior determinations by the Employer.
The union and management disagreed on the definition of a “responsible accident,” and the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Employer, agreeing that a responsible accident means a preventable accident. Despite the union arguing the driver was well-liked by bus-riders, and enjoyed her job; safety won out in the end.

Employers prevailed in both arbitration cases because they had focused a lot of time, attention, and money relaying the importance of safety to employees through training, policies, and consistent application of discipline. Accidents will happen; Employers need to make safety a priority, and hold employees accountable for safety violations.