HR Management & Compliance

Was Injured Employee Adequately Trained On Safety Procedures?

What Happened

“Brendan” worked for National Starch & Chemical Company, now known as ICI American Holding Company, for 30 years before he was injured on the job on October 20, 2007.

Brendan, a mechanic, was injured when he and another employee tried to replace three broken drive belts on a “blending blower” in the company’s Kansas City plant. Three fingers on his right hand were injured when they were pinched between a drive belt and a pulley.

The incident occurred after Brendan and a co-worker had cut the electrical power to the blower, but failed to eliminate the reverse airflow to the blower. Although a pulley continued to rotate, neither Brendan nor the co-worker shut off the air valve to the blower or asked a supervisor for help. Instead, they inserted an aluminum broom handle into the machine to stop the pulley from rotating. Shortly after Brendan started working on the blower, the broom handle broke, the pulley began to move, and his hand was pulled into the blower.

From 1995 and 2007, Brendan had received training on the company’s “lock-out rules” 10 times. The most recent training took place 1 month before the injury, when he successfully completed a multiple-choice test on those safety rules after that session.

National Starch argued that Brendan caused his own injury because he did not follow the company’s lock-out/tag-out safety rules that require that “[a]ll energy isolating devices that are needed to control the energy to the machine or equipment shall be physically located and operated in such a manner as to isolate the machine or equipment from the energy source(s),” and that “[a]ll potentially hazardous stored or residual energy shall be relieved, disconnected, restrained, and otherwise rendered safe.”

Brendan filed a workers’ compensation claim. After a March 2009 hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) awarded Brendan $72,834.39 for temporary total disability, permanent partial disability, and medical costs. However, the ALJ reduced the award by 37.5 percent in accordance with state law, based on his conclusion that Brendan’s injury resulted from his failure to follow the company’s safety rules. The award was also subject to a $25,364.66 credit for benefits that National Starch had previously paid. As a result, the ALJ determined that Brendan was owed $19,856.84.

Brendan appealed the decision to the Commission, but the Commission said it did not believe Brendan’s contention that he did not knowingly violate a safety rule. Brendan then appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

What the Court Said

The appeals court agreed with Brendan that the Commission made a mathematical error when calculating his award. However, the court rejected his challenges to the reduction itself and upheld the Commission’s award as modified.

Under Missouri’s Workers’ Compensation Law, “[w]here an injury is caused by the failure of the employee to use safety devices where provided by the employer, or from the employee’s failure to obey any reasonable rule adopted by the employer for the safety of employees, the compensation and death benefit provided for herein shall be reduced at least 25 [percent] but not more than 50 percent; provided that it is shown that the employee had actual knowledge of the rule so adopted by the employer; and provided, further, that the employer had, prior to the injury, made a reasonable effort to cause his or her employees to use the safety device or devices and to obey or follow the rule so adopted for the safety of the employees.

The court said that “substantial evidence in the record supports the Commission’s determination that National Starch made reasonable efforts to cause employee compliance with its lock-out rules. National Starch distributed written safety materials and conducted regular training seminars educating employees concerning the rules, and warning them that ‘[d]isciplinary action will be taken if employees fail to follow necessary guidelines … up to and including termination.’

“Training records revealed that … [Brendan] received almost annual training on these rules between March 1995 and September 2007 and successfully completed a written test to confirm his understanding of those rules. This evidence supports the Commission’s conclusion that National Starch’s Lock-Out Rules were not simply ‘on the books,’ and ‘dusted off’ for purposes of these proceedings, as… [Brendan] contends—employees were actively and repeatedly trained on these rules, their comprehension of the rules was confirmed by written tests, and they were warned of discipline up to and including termination if they failed to comply.”

Thompson v. ICI American Holding f/k/a National Starch & Chemical (No. WD72374) (Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, 8/9/11)

In Brief

Although this case deals specifically with Missouri state law, it serves as a good reminder to all employers about the need to train workers on safety rules and to document both their completion of training courses and their understanding of the material covered.

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