SAC: employer’s instruction on safe work performance must be exact
In a case involving a fatal on-the-job-accident, the Supreme Administrative Court dealt with to what extent employers have to organise their employees’ work and set work procedures to meet work safety and health protection duties. The verdict is strict – instructions must be detailed and exact, otherwise employers face penalties of up to one million Czech crowns.
A construction worker had been tasked with repairing a building’s plastering ca. five meters above the ground. To complete the task, he used a ladder that he stood on an already erected scaffolding. While performing the work, the worker fell, suffering severe injuries that resulted in his death. The Labour Inspection Office penalised the employer, concluding that the employer had breached the duty to organise work and set work procedures so as to comply with work safety principles and protect employees from falls.
The employer challenged the office’s decision in court, arguing that the worker was an experienced employee, and that the employer had met the duty by training the employee in work safety and health protection on a regular basis. The employer had also explicitly determined and explained to the worker in advance what ladder and scaffolding to use. Furthermore, the worker himself had not mentioned anything about these tools being unsuitable; instead, he had placed the ladder on another scaffolding already standing in place.
The Regional Court did not accept the employer’s defence: in the court’s opinion, none of the tools provided could have ensured the safe performance of work five meters above ground. The judgment pointed out that the employer had not given the employee exact instructions on how to perform the work safely using the tools assigned. The argument that the well-trained employee had not himself pointed out the unsuitability of the tools did not help to alter this conclusion.
The case then proceeded before the Supreme Administrative Court. This court, however, did not accept the employer’s arguments either. The employer’s objections that they could not have foreseen that the employee might choose different, unsuitable tools, and that an employer could not be tasked with explicitly forbidding all possible unsuitable procedures were not granted. The SAC held that, simply speaking, employers are always obliged to organise work and set work procedures so as to comply with work safety principles and protect employees from falls. At the same time, employers must ensure that these principles are observed – in other words, they must check work performance on a regular basis. The court also pointed out an important rule –employers have no-fault liability for such offences, i.e. they are liable regardless of any fault on the employee’s part (any contributory fault on the employee’s part is only relevant for the employee’s entitlement to damage compensation).
The judgment should serve as a warning to employers: it is not feasible to simply rely on the experience of employees or their general safety training; it is always necessary to instruct employees on how to perform specific work tasks, and to ensure that such instructions are observed. This is the only way to avoid penalties and prevent on-the-job-accidents involving damage compensation.