All workers are entitled to work in an environment where their health and safety are properly protected. The primary responsibility lies with the employer under health and safety law and includes matters such as training, risk assessments, consultation, equipment and insurance to the more practical items like first-aid facilities, bathrooms, and drinking water. However, health and safety law does not operate in isolation, especially where mental health conditions are concerned.
In a recent employment tribunal decision, a Sky engineer who was dismissed after breaching health and safety rules whilst experiencing a mental health condition was held to have been discriminated against and unfairly dismissed.
The engineer, Mr. Plowright, was installing hardware for a Sky TV customer in February 2018, on a day when he was going through a divorce and his partner and daughter were moving out. The customer had been talking about their daughter, which made him feel upset and distracted him. He happened to be subject to routine unannounced inspection and was found wearing no safety equipment other than a hard hat at the top of a ladder that was not properly secured.
After being told to stop work, he attended a meeting later that day and was suspended. An occupational health assessment during his suspension confirmed he was suffering ‘reactive depression’, which included reduced concentration, low moods, and poor sleep, resulting in his being declared ‘unfit for work’. His GP also diagnosed him with ‘mood disorder’ and ‘mixed anxiety and depressive disorder’.
However, despite this, at a conduct hearing in May 2018, Mr. Plowright was dismissed, with his appeal failing, after 11 years of service. Sky sought to justify the decision on the basis that he had worked on other jobs that day safely; his personal matters had existed long before then and he had failed to obtain support sooner from his GP or his employer. Mr. Plowright successfully argued he had informed his line manager about his diagnosis of depression on 9 March 2018, which the Tribunal held to be a “sufficient indication” that he could have a mental impairment. The judge held his condition affected his ability to carry out day-to-day activities and was likely to recur after 12 months, rendering him disabled under the Equality Act 2010.
This case shows that whilst health and safety are crucial to any business, dismissal may not always be justifiable as an appropriate and necessary means of achieving this legitimate aim. The circumstances of each case will be important. Businesses need to consider investing in training on health and safety, including recognizing and understanding mental health matters and disability discrimination law better.
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