In August, the New York Times published an article on the “unique” working atmosphere inside one of the country’s largest retailers, which raised some interesting questions. How hard can companies push their employees to do more with less and in a shorter period of time, and what are the consequences? Entwined in this question are concerns about violations of federal and state laws protecting employees’ rights to a safe workplace. Labor and employment law covers a myriad of issues, including how to handle overtime pay and how much overtime is too much. Employers must be aware of their duties under the law and have policies in place that protect employees while still allowing the business to operate at maximum efficiency levels.
Worked to Death? An Employer’s Liability
While creative giants such as Google and Amazon may enjoy certain luxuries when designing the workspace and hourly mandates for their employees, most employers are bound by a different set of rules. Essentially, these behemoths do not necessarily break or skirt labor laws, but they attract a very different type of workforce than most other businesses, which may allow for some of the irregularities that are seen in such environments. Regardless of the environment, however, even these massive corporations can be held liable for injuries and deaths that occur while an employee is on the clock.
One employer in Pennsylvania was recently found to have contributed to its employee’s death after he worked a grueling 14-hour shift performing field maintenance on the employer’s water systems. While the employer challenged liability in part due to the employee’s cigarette smoking habit, a three-judge panel found that the employee would not have had his fatal heart attack had it not been for hard labor during regular 14-hour shifts over 20 years of employment. The employer was required to provide death benefits to the employee’s surviving spouse and minor child.
Policies and Procedures
Employers can and should take steps to protect against injuries to their employees. Not only does a safe working environment help employees be able to perform the duties for which they were hired, but it limits the amount of liability an employer faces in the event of an accident. A key component of a safe workplace is having policies and procedures in place that allow employees to report hazards as well as take breaks when necessary to protect against injury. This is especially important when the nature of a company’s business involves strenuous working conditions and/or long hours in order to complete a job. As in the case referenced above, long hours may have been required due to the fact that employees were tasked with repairing water mains - a job that likely cannot be completed with typical 9 to 5 work days. However, even these types of workplaces can protect employees from being ‘worked to death’ by implementing break periods, providing cool places for employees to rest, or ensuring that employees receive sufficient time away from the workplace to recover.
If your company’s business involves work that can be hazardous to employees, or you are considering a change to a corporate culture like Amazon’s, call the professionals at law office of Garcia & Gurney today. We can help guide your company to success by drafting strong policies that are compliant with state and federal employment laws.