Five years ago we blogged Missouri's tough-on-workers reforms that made it more difficult to collect benefits in the "show me" state. Among the provisions in the new law was a 20 to 50 percent reduction in indemnity for workers who are injured while wilfully ignoring the employer's safety program.
Which brings us to Dennis Carver, a roofer who worked for Delta Innovative Services in Kansas City. Carver was carrying a 100-pound roll of composite weather barrier up a ladder - no easy task! - when he injured his back, resulting in a permanent total disability. The problem was that Delta had a safety policy that required three point contact with a ladder at all times: it would be physically impossible to carry a 100 pound roll and maintain three point contact. Because he violated the policy, Carver's indemnity was cut in half, from $743 per week to $371.
Carver admitted that he went to work with the intent of violating the policy. He knew that instead of having the usual crew of 11 men on the job, the crew that day would total two people: himself as foreman and one other crew member working in a separate area. He knew full well that he was on his own. He also knew that company policy required that he use a hand pulley or power equipment - or request the assistance of a coworker - to lift materials to the top of a ladder.
Delta argued that Carver caused his own injury by failing to follow its "three-point" safety rule. Slam dunk for the employer? Here is the statute:
[w]here the 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 twenty-five but not more than fifty 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.§ 287.120.5
"The burden of establishing any affirmative defense is on the employer․ In asserting any claim or defense based on a factual proposition, the party asserting such claim or defense must establish that such proposition is more likely to be true than not true." § 287.808.
Thus the statute presents a checklist for reducing indemnity payments:
1. that the employer adopted a reasonable rule for the safety of employees; CHECK
2. that the injury was caused by the failure of the employee to obey the safety rule; CHECK
3. that the employee had actual knowledge of the rule; CHECK and
4. that prior to the injury the employer had made a reasonable effort to cause his or her employees to obey the safety rule. NOT SO FAST!
Theory and Practice
While Delta's owner, Danny Boyle, testified that "[n]ormally our guys are trained ․ [that] the only thing that should be carried on a ladder is the person himself," he then testified that employees routinely violated that rule:
Q. Does that mean nobody ever carries anything?
A. Not at all. Guys tend to do things wrong all the time.[emphasis added]
Q. And that's what--
A. I'm just being truthful.
Q. Sure. It happens. It's faster to carry it up sometimes?
Q. Because you're trying to finish a job and get something done, you may carry something up a ladder as opposed to using the beam?
Q. Or the pulley?
Even though Boyle was aware of multiple instances in which employees had failed to follow the three-point rule, he was unable to provide any testimony concerning discipline imposed on noncompliant employees. In other words, the policy was not enforced. And because it was not enforced, Delta must own the consequences of employees failing to follow it.
The Court of Appeals remanded this case back the workers comp commission, for a closer examination of whether there were grounds for reducing the indemnity payments. In all likelihood, Carver will collect the full indemnity.
Roofers at Risk
Boyle's testimony that "guys tend to do things wrong all the time" reminds me of a telling moment in a training session some years ago. I was explaining the implications of implementing a drug testing program and the owner of a small roofing company responded: "I could never do that. Half my guys would fail." [Need I add that, following the seminar, I alerted the underwriter to flag that account for non-renewal?]
Would it surprise you to learn that roofing is one of the most expensive job classes in workers comp? The rates can run as high as $50.00 per $100 of payroll and even higher. It is difficult, demanding work. In some respects, there is no such thing as a good day for a roofer: it's either too hot, too cold, or too windy. The exposures are relentless and the work itself, especially on the commercial side with hot tar involved, can be noxious.
Owners of roofing companies like Danny Boyle are faced with a daily conundrum: do I enforce the rules and slow down the work? Do I discipline employees for violations or let the work flow, hazards be damned? In the course of normal employment, it's tempting to ignore the finer points of safety. But that puts workers at risk for serious injuries - and owners at risk for footing substantial bills.