Monday, 02 June 2014 08:49
By Logan Marcus
A car part manufacturer operated six foundries, employing workers 24-hours a day on three eight-hour shifts. During these shifts, workers had direct exposure to hazardous chemicals, some of which were airborne and easily attached to clothing and skin. Studies have shown poor ventilation and continued exposure to chemicals present in foundries, have a direct correlation to development of adverse health effects, especially increasing the chances of developing lung cancer. The manufacturer required its employees to wear protective equipment, intended to increase safety, and minimize the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals. It is common practice in the foundry industry for workers to shower and change clothes after a completed shift to prevent the transportation of hazardous chemical particles, especially to their homes. The workers take these precautions to not only to reduce their own health risks, but to prevent increased risks to the health of others.
Pay us to shower, please
Although the employer encouraged its workers to take showers after a shift, it did not compel the workers to do so. Those workers who chose to shower waited until the end of their shifts, extending the work week beyond 40 hours, and potentially triggering overtime compensation rules. However, the manufacturer did not pay overtime to the workers who chose to shower.
The foundry workers alleged the manufacturer violated the FLSA by not compensating them for the time taken to shower and change their clothes after a shift. The manufacturer maintained because both OSHA and the manufacturer recommend on-site showers and removal of uniforms, but did not mandate them, the workers had no entitlement to compensation for elective precautions taken. Workers who chose not to shower or change clothes received no discipline, proving the manufacturer’s intention for these recommendations to be just that, and not a mandate.
Court’s ruling and dissent
Although the showering was not required by law or by the manufacturer, the court of appeals considered whether these precautions were required by the nature of the work performed. After considering all facts, the court of appeals declined to issue a strict one size fits all test for what precautions might rise to the level of justifying overtime pay, instead deciding the issue should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Employers operating inherently dangerous work environments may have a greater responsibility to implement better safety measures. Although it is important to address and confront the effects of exposure to hazardous materials, there must be an end to the employers’ responsibility to avoid unbridled misuse. The court of appeals failed to address what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to shower and change clothes, potentially allowing workers the free reign to abuse overtime requirements. Absent reasonable time constraint standards, the court of appeals’ ruling leaves open the possibility employers could become liable for inordinate sums of overtime compensation, should employees decide to take advantage of this safety precaution or others like it.