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July 28, 2003
Can an Injured Worker Who Violates a Safety Rule Collect Workers' Comp Benefits?

(Based on a true case)

When Peter Mars first joined Bowman Company as a machine operator, his supervisor, Jim Larson, gave him a tour of the workplace. "You're going to find that we're very committed to safety around here, Peter. Here's the safety manual. Look it over before the first safety meeting." Mars dutifully read the manual, including a section on how to lock out the conveyor system before fixing a jam. At the safety meeting, the instructor reviewed the company's lockout procedures. He also provided Mars with a padlock of his own.

"You should never put your hands inside the conveyor until you shut down and lock out the machine with this padlock," the instructor warned Mars as he handed him the lock. "If you don't follow these rules, you could get docked a day's pay if you're caught. If you're caught a second time, you're fired. And you could get seriously hurt. Understand?"

Mars worked diligently at the job over the next couple of years. He attended several other safety meetings where lockout procedures were reviewed and emphasized. He did follow the lockout rules on a couple of occasions when the conveyor jammed.

Then, one day, Mars was at his workstation when the running conveyor system jammed up because a piece of wood became stuck. He was too rushed to get his padlock at the other end of the plant. He quickly placed his hand into the conveyor to dislodge the wood.

As he did so, the conveyor suddenly started moving again. It grabbed his hand and crushed it before he could pull it out. Mars was rushed to the hospital, where his hand was amputated.

While recovering from his debilitating injuries, Mars filed for workers' comp benefits. Much to his surprise, his employer fought the claim. "What do you mean they won't give me workers' comp?" Mars complained to his attorney. "Look at me. I lost my hand because of this job. I deserve workers' comp!"

Mars's attorney filed an appeal before the state supreme court. At the hearing, Bowman's counsel explained the company's objections:

  • All employees at Bowman, including Peter Mars, were informed that the conveyor had to be locked out before placing their hands inside the machine.
  • Peter Mars was given a safety manual that described the lockout procedure. He was also given his own padlock.
  • Peter Mars attended at least three safety meetings in which the details and importance of the lookout procedures were explained and emphasized.
  • Employees have been disciplined for not following lockout procedures.

As a result, Peter Mars's injury was caused by his willful misconduct and he should not be allowed to benefit from his actions.

DECISION: Benefits denied for the machine operator, ruled the Alabama Supreme Court. It was undeniable that Mars willfully disobeyed a mandatory safety rule. In fact, he even admitted under oath that he knew at the time he was injured that the safety rules required him to lock out the conveyor before attempting to remove the piece of wood. The undisputed evidence showed that if the conveyor had been locked out, said the court, Mars's injury would not have occurred.

COMMENT: Here the company did everything right with their safety program and yet a serious injury occurred anyway due to employee misconduct. Because the company had documented all training sessions, it was able to prove that it was not responsible for the accident.

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