Can You Fire an Exhausted Worker for Sleeping on the Job?

1
25

There are dozens of studies that show a strong connection between worker fatigue and safety incidents. This connection is especially strong for workers who work certain schedules, such as 12-hour shifts or overnight. Obviously, you don’t want workers to get exhausted and become a safety risk. You want them to get enough sleep. You just don’t want them to catch up on their sleep in the workplace. If a worker dozes off on the job, he puts himself and his co-workers in danger. Clearly, that worker deserves some sort of discipline. But can you fire a worker for falling asleep on the job? Here are two cases that illustrate the factors courts will consider to determine when it’s okay to fire a worker for nodding off at work.

FIRING IS JUSTIFIED

FACTS
A personal care company hired several nurses to care for an autistic patient around the clock. The patient was aggressive and had hurt herself and others in the past. She also had a history of nighttime grand-mal seizures and had been known to wander off. So each nurse was required to stay awake for her entire shift. But the nurse who worked the night shift fell asleep on the job. And, apparently, that was her plan all along: the nurse had actually brought a quilt to make herself more comfortable and an alarm clock to wake her up before the next nurse arrived. Unfortunately for her, the alarm clock didn’t work and the nurse got caught by her replacement. She begged the other nurse not to tell anyone. But the company found out what she’d done and fired her.

DECISION
A BC arbitrator ruled that the nurse’s termination was justified.

EXPLANATION
The arbitrator gave three reasons for his decision:

The nurse intended to sleep on the job. The nurse didn’t doze off accidentally. She’d brought in a quilt and alarm clock, which proved that she intended to fall asleep.

The nurse tried to cover up her mistake. The nurse didn’t take responsibility for her actions or express remorse. Instead, she asked another worker to lie for her so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Her actions breached the employer’s trust and irreparably damaged the employment relationship.

The nurse jeopardized the patient’s safety. The nurse was the sole person responsible for caring for the patient during the night. By falling asleep on the job, she jeopardized the safety and well-being of the patient and others.

Pamel’s Home Society v. Hospital Employees’ Union (Nagi Grievance), [2006] B.C.C.A.A.A. No. 40, Feb. 27, 2006 

FIRING IS NOT JUSTIFIED

FACTS
After a scheduled break, a part-time worker, who was working as a lead hand, hid himself in a trailer so he could rest a bit longer. He brought a can of soda and bag of potato chips to eat during his “extended break.” A little while later, his manager found him lying down with his eyes closed. The worker denied that he was sleeping, claiming that he was “just closing his eyes” and taking an extended break because he thought he was caught up with his work. The employer fired him anyway for “malingering on the job.”

DECISION
A federal arbitrator ruled that the worker’s termination wasn’t justified and cut his penalty to a three-month suspension and a demotion.

EXPLANATION
The arbitrator based his decision on the following:

The worker didn’t intend to fall asleep on the job. There was no question that the worker intended to take a longer break than the one to which he was entitled. But he had brought a snack with him to the trailer, proving that he intended to stay awake.

There was no evidence the worker had lied about whether he was asleep. There wasn’t any hard evidence to refute the worker’s claim that he was just resting his eyes. “The thrust of his offence might be better characterized as absenting himself from his workplace and engaging in an unauthorized break,” the arbitrator said.

The worker hadn’t jeopardized anyone’s safety. The arbitrator noted that, whether the worker was asleep or just resting, he’d never put anyone in jeopardy when he took his extended break.

In re: Canpar and United Steelworkers of America (Local 1976), Canadian Railway Office of Arbitration, Case No. 3385, Dec. 13, 2003