Ask an HR Expert: Can I Fire an Employee for Repeated Workplace Injuries?

Discipline may be warranted in some circumstances, but it should be proportionate to the offense.

By Erin Patton, SHRM-SCP September 26, 2017
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Ask an HR Expert: Can I Fire an Employee for Repeated Workplace Injuries?

​Depending on the circumstances, workplace injuries may warrant termination for workers who repeatedly fail to follow safety policies and procedures, even after thorough training and disciplinary action. However, consult with legal counsel before taking any adverse action.

As a first step, determine whether a worker is engaging in misconduct that is causing the incidents and whether there are adequate safety measures in place to reduce the risk of injury.

Then, investigate and document all workplace injuries to figure out the cause and proper response. Consider the severity of the incidents and any history of safety violations. Never discipline anyone solely because he or she filed a workers’ compensation claim: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because the person reports an injury or illness, and doing so may discourage that individual and others from reporting injuries in the future. That said, if the worker is clearly at fault and has caused repeated incidents that place others at risk, you must address the issue. (OSHA provides guidance on this in a 2012 memo titled Employer Safety Incentive and Disincentive Policies and Practices.)

The discipline should be in proportion to the offense. A person who engages in horseplay or forgets his hard hat may receive a written warning or suspension, for example, whereas an individual who disassembles a machine’s safety guard because he finds it annoying would likely face harsher consequences, such as termination. OSHA advises employers to review the following factors:

  • Was the employee’s deviation from the procedure minor or extensive, inadvertent or deliberate?
  • Did the worker have a reasonable basis for acting as he or she did?
  • Can the employer show a substantial interest in the rule and its enforcement?
  • Does the discipline imposed appear disproportionate to the asserted interest?

If, after assessing the situation, it becomes clear that the worker hasn’t been properly trained on the safety equipment or that the company doesn’t have appropriate safeguards in place, the fault lies with the employer. In that case, no disciplinary action is warranted. It is incumbent on the company to provide a hazard-free workplace and to communicate safety procedures to employees.

Erin Patton, SHRM-SCP, is a knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management.

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