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Can I Lose Workers’ Compensation Benefits for Not Following Safety Rules?

If you are injured in the course of your employment, you have the right to seek workers’ compensation benefits to cover your medical care and lost wages. But there are certain restrictions that apply to employees under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation system. For instance, an employer does not have to pay workers’ compensation if an employee is injured due to his “willful failure or refusal to use a safety device” that has been prescribed as part of the employee’s job.

Removing Harness to Avoid Tripping Not a “Valid Excuse”

An employee may still be able to claim workers’ compensation if he or she can provide a “valid excuse” for not using any required safety equipment. But Tennessee courts are reluctant to accept such excuses. A recent decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel illustrates the uphill climb an employee faced in such situations.

The employee in this case worked as a roofer. The employer required all employees to wear a safety harness while working on a roof. On the day in question, the employee chose to remove the harness and subsequently fell of the roof he was working on. As a result, the employee suffered a fractured hip socket, broken pubic bone, and a right-arm fracture.

The employer denied workers’ compensation benefits because the employee was not wearing his mandatory safety harness. Before a Tennessee trial court, the employee said he had a “valid excuse” for taking off the harness just before the accident. The harness was attached by a cable to a separate box. The cable is supposed to lock in place if there is sudden movement. The employee testified, however, that the cable had become wrapped around his leg, and he was concerned about tripping over it as he worked. That is why he chose to remove the harness. The employee further explained that he had worked for 18 years as a roofer, and that his current employer was the only one that had ever mandated a safety harness.

The trial court accepted the employee’s excuse and awarded him workers’ compensation benefits. The employer appealed. In a June 20 decision, the Appeals Panel reversed the trial judge’s decision.

The panel said the employee’s experience in working without a harness did not justify violating a clear safety rule enforced by his employer. The employee could have untangled his leg without removing the harness altogether, the panel noted, but he was “working quickly to finish the job,” and saved “roughly 30 to 40 seconds” by not using an alternate method. Furthermore, the employee was “at the very edge of the roof” when he removed the harness, “where the possibility of falling was the greatest.” Given all this, the panel held the employee did not have a valid excuse and was not legally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

Fighting for Workers’ Compensation Benefits

It is important to note that Tennessee law only allows an employer to deny workers’ compensation benefits when an employer actually maintains and enforces a safety rule that the employee is actually aware of. An employer cannot make up a rule after the fact to justify denying benefits. If you have been injured on the job and require legal advice from an experienced Tennessee workers’ compensation lawyer, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville right away.

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