2 supervisors given less severe discipline for same incident
After a NARL Refining employee issued a safety permit that improperly indicated a confined space was safe, he was promptly dismissed.
Joshua Ackerman worked as an operator since 2014 at the Come By Chance, N.L. refinery when on Dec. 18, 2017 a clarifier — a circular tank that cleans wastewater before it goes out to sea — was scheduled to be put back into operation after being out of service for months due to repairs on its cleaning rake.
Before the clarifier could be put back into service, ice was detected inside, which meant workers had to enter the confined space to manually remove the ice with a melter. When workers went into the space, the operator was responsible for ensuring that all blinds were in place so wastewater would not rush into the space while workers were inside.
When Ackerman began his shift, he was advised that the blinds would be removed before the clarifier would be placed back into service, so he issued a work permit for that job around 8:30 a.m. But those blinds should not have been removed due to the clarifier being re-commissioned; the job was supposed to be cancelled but it wasn’t, leaving the clarifier maintenance workers vulnerable.
Later, Ackerman was told that ice was detected inside the clarifier and it would have to be removed. He signed a confined space permit at 11:40 a.m. and checked off all the boxes on the permit checklist that signified there was a space work space in the clarifier.
However, one of the boxes indicated the proper isolation was in place, despite the earlier blind-removal operation.
The confined space permits were renewed for the night shift, and work continued. Nobody was hurt due to Ackerman’s mistake, but it was discovered the following day and investigated.
On Dec. 21, Ackerman’s employment was terminated.
“Your role as an operator is to ensure that procedure is followed when issuing permits to your co-workers, allowing them to work safely on their assigned tasks. We take issue with the fact that you identified the isolation on the confined space permit but failed to validate that was accurate,” said the termination letter.
The union, United Steelworkers (USW), Local 9316, grieved the decision and argued that two other employees were disciplined but not dismissed for the same incident, specifically, the non-cancellation of the blinds being removed, which was unfair to Ackerman. While he did commit a significant error, it wasn’t worthy of the discipline he received, said USW.
Arbitrator James Oakley ordered the employer to reinstate Ackerman but with a 12-month unpaid suspension.
“There were inconsistent disciplinary penalties in this case, when comparing the discharge of (Ackerman) with the six-week suspension issued to the maintenance supervisor and the four-week suspension issued to the operations supervisor, and the fact that no discipline was considered for night shift employees with respect to the entry into the confined space on the night shift. (Ackerman) was at fault and is deserving of a significant disciplinary penalty. However, I find that the penalty of discharge imposed on (Ackerman) is disproportionate to his responsibility compared to the responsibility of others and the disciplinary penalties imposed on others with respect to the same incident. I find that the employer did not have just cause to impose the penalty of discharge,” said Oakley.
Ackerman didn’t uphold his end of the safety standard, said Oakley, which precipitated the disciplinary action.
“(Ackerman’s) behaviour was careless because he did not comply with his responsibility as set out in the standard. He had the information he needed to comply with his duty and to not issue the permit until he confirmed isolation of the confined space. In this case, there was no injury or actual harm, however, there was the potential for catastrophic harm.”