Ignoring a manager’s health & safety concerns held not to be the actions of a fair and reasonable employer.  The Employment Relations Authority has upheld an employee’s claim for an unjustified disadvantage and awarded lost wages of $5,400 and compensation for hurt and humiliation of $7,000.

The employee was engaged as a manager of a licenced premises. She raised concerns over fire exits being obstructed by boxes stacked over the exits, an exit door not unlocking during a fire alarm and the emergency plan not giving proper instructions.  The emergency plan required patrons to assemble in the car park but the premises did not have a car park.

The manager also raised concerns about the serving of alcohol to intoxicated patrons.  She found as a result that her hours were reduced on rosters to the point where she was given no shifts at all and the alarm code was altered without her knowledge.  Although she was never actually “dismissed” the ERA held that she was effectively out of work due to the lack of rostered shifts and therefore awarded her lost wages until she found a new position.

Obviously, the employer here reacted badly to the employee’s concerns and did not approach the situation in a way that would have dealt with the concerns appropriately. That is actually quite a common response as people let their hurt feelings get in the way of a dispassionate consideration of the issues.

In addition to the employment issues over the way she was treated this case raised serious issues about the Health and Safety procedure of this workplace.

  1. Fire exits were blocked.
  2. Fire exit doors did not unlock in a fire alarm situation as they were supposed to do.
  3. The emergency plan had little relevance to the actual premises.  It may have been a cut and paste but no one had given much thought to its application to the building occupied.  To be appropriate an emergency plan musts be effective.  Check out your business plan to ensure it fits your circumstances.

The emergency plan may have been a cut and paste that ticked the box for having a plan, but it appears no one had given much thought to its application to the building occupied.  To be appropriate an emergency plan musts be effective.  Check out your business plan to ensure it fits your circumstances.

You should consult with your staff on the plan and once it is in place ensure that all staff are aware of the plan and what they need to do.  Training and practices (like a fire drill) are important parts of ensuring staff know what to do and, as a learning from the case referred to above, if you are checking your plan or premises, make sure that fire exits are not blocked and that the doors do open when people need to use them in an emergency.

Another thing that is commonly overlooked (especially in offices) is chemicals in the kitchen. Do you have dishwashing or cleaning products under the sink? Consider the risk they may pose to young children visiting the workplace who may be left unsupervised while their parent does some urgent work. Child proof caps and a lock on the cupboard are simple and effective (and cost effective) ways to minimise the risk but often not remembered in amongst the more obviously dangerous things in the workplace.

Alan Knowsley
Employment Lawyer
Wellington