Management duty to accommodate pursuant to legal obligations related to health and safety in the workplace
During July 2005, Montréal Gateway Terminals (« MGT ») established a policy requiring mandatory use of safety helmets for truck drivers having access to the terminals it operates in the Port of Montreal. Three truck drivers of the Sikh faith, working for private companies, asked to be exempted from the application of this policy on the grounds that their religious beliefs didn’t allow them to wear a safety helmet over their turban.
An initial accommodation measure, implemented from 2005 to 2008 at the initiative of the MGT, was designed to transfer tasks normally performed by the truck driver outside his truck to an inspector. In this manner, the Sikh driver could remain inside his vehicle throughout his transit to one of the terminals operated by MGT thus eliminating the need to wear the safety helmet. This measure however, was deemed highly unsatisfactory to both the company and the Sikh drivers.
The truck drivers complained about the considerable delays triggered by the waiting time for an available inspector. On the other hand, the company was unhappy with decreased productivity of inspectors and significant cost increases brought on by these additional tasks.
The three truck drivers challenged the MGT policy before the Superior Court, arguing they were victims of religious discrimination.
The Court first analyzed the issue as to whether the policy was discriminatory. It ruled that there existed prima facie discrimination, as the plaintiffs were affected in a different manner than other people governed by the policy. In fact, it is impossible for Sikh truck drivers to wear safety helmets without contravening their religious beliefs. By so doing, the policy compromises their right to equality in the exercise of their freedom of religion and is therefore discriminatory.
The Court is of the view however, that the company succeeded in demonstrating that its policy corresponds to a justified professional requirement.
Firstly, the objective of ensuring the safety of truck drivers is entirely legitimate, particularly in view of the nature of activities of the company and the risk of head injuries in this work environment.
Secondly, the norm requiring the wearing of a safety helmet was reasonable and necessary. In the present matter, there was no alternative strategy available to allow the company to comply with its legal and regulatory obligations related to health and safety in the workplace. Furthermore, the sole accommodation measure envisaged and applied throughout a three year period amounted to undue hardship for the company.
The Court also reiterated that the duty to cooperate is incumbent upon all parties, during the implementation of any accommodation measure. In this regard, it was insufficient for the plaintiffs to demand a comprehensive exemption from the policy, without proposing any other potential solutions. The Court thus dismissed the claim.
This decision is significant, as it demonstrates that the legal obligation imposed upon the employer by laws and regulations in the field of health and safety in the workplace are relevant to the analysis of undue hardship, particularly where no reasonable measure is in place to allow the accommodation of employees while ensuring their protection from the standpoint of health and safety.
It is nevertheless necessary to keep in mind that each request for accommodation has to be analysed case-by-case, taking into account the position of the plaintiff and the company in the matter under review. Consequently, there is no automatic solution in these types of scenarios. Furthermore, the obligations of management in the field of health and safety in the workplace does not relieve a company from its duty to undertake a serious accommodation process. A notice of appeal was filed with the Quebec Court of Appeal on October 19, 2016. We will keep you informed of any further developments.
See: Singh v. Montréal Gateway Terminals Partnership (CP Ships Ltd./Navigation Cp ltée), 2016 QCSC 4521, notice of appeal filed on 19-10-2016