Employees who are tasked with enforcing health and safety rules often encounter stiff resistance from colleagues who are reluctant to embrace change. As a case concerning a sacked railway maintenance supervisor showed, however, such employees enjoy special protection under the law (Sinclair v Trackwork Ltd).
The supervisor was instructed by his employer to implement new health and safety procedures. Colleagues who were unaccustomed to change felt that he was going about that task in an over-zealous manner and, after they complained to management, the supervisor was dismissed.
He launched Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings on the basis that his dismissal was automatically unfair under Section 100(1)(a) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which confers specific legal protection on workers who are designated to carry out activities connected to the prevention or reduction of health and safety risks in the workplace.
The ET expressed a great deal of sympathy for him but dismissed his claim with a heavy heart. It found that the reason for his dismissal was the friction and upset amongst colleagues that his activities, and the way in which he went about them, had caused. It was his methodology rather than his role as a health and safety supervisor that had led to demoralisation affecting a loyal workforce.
Upholding his challenge to that outcome, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that he was a victim of poor management in that his employer had not told his colleagues about what he was trying to achieve. He did not exceed his mandate and he was neither malicious nor untruthful in diligently performing the task assigned to him.
The mischief that Section 100(1)(a) sought to guard against included the fact that carrying out health and safety activities will often be resisted or regarded as unwelcome by colleagues. It would wholly undermine the statutory protection if an employer could rely on the upset caused by legitimate health and safety activity as a reason for dismissal.
There was no proper distinction to be drawn between the colleagues' reaction to the supervisor's protected activity and the activity itself. The former was a direct and predictable consequence of the supervisor seeking to implement a new safety system within an established workplace.
The EAT substituted a finding that that the reason for his dismissal was the carrying out of activities protected by Section 100(1)(a). The case was sent back to the ET for consideration of remedy issues.