B.C. rail worker who disabled ‘deadman’s switch’ with tape awarded his job back

A rail maintenance worker in B.C. was awarded his job back after being fired for what his employer considered a major breach of safety protocol.

Ramon Quiambao was a guideway serviceperson with the British Columbia Rapid Transit Company (BCRTC). It’s the company that operates and maintains the Expo and Millenium SkyTrain lines and the West Coast Express commuter rail service.

On Feb. 8, 2022, he was fired for taping down or tying off the “deadman’s switch” – a safety device. Quiambao had eight years’ service with no disciplinary record.

The “envelope” the SkyTrain runs through is called the guideway. Quiambao’s duties included conducting inspections of the guideway for any problems and assisting technicians in repair of the track.

Operating the speeder

To do his job, he operated equipment including speeders – which are vehicles that travel on the rails to transport employees and tools to worksites along the track. The speeder is driven via a joystick, which has a trigger on it known as the deadman’s switch.

To travel forward, the operator must push a button to release the parking brake; press and keep holding down the deadman’s switch; and while, doing so, push the joystick forward.

The joystick is spring loaded. If it is pulled back to the upright position and the deadman’s switch is released, the speeder will slow down. It also has foot brakes and emergency/air brakes, depending on the model of the speeder.

The arbitrator said there was no question the deadman switch is a safety device. If the operator became incapacitated for any reason, it would slow the vehicle. (Witness testimony differed on whether it stopped the vehicle or simply slowed it down.)

Taping the switch

On Jan. 31, 2022, Quiambao worked the night shift as part of a four-person crew. They were assigned to do a “speeder walk” to inspect the track – basically driving it at about five kilometres per hour to do a visual inspection of the track.

It was a cold winter’s night, and he testified that his hands became very cold from continually pressing the deadman’s switch on the joystick. He put gloves on, but it was difficult to move his fingers on the switch as they were bulky.

He decided to use flagging tape to tape down the switch – something the arbitrator called a “bad decision.” A colleague saw the tape and said “that is an interesting way of doing things.” But they carried on. The inspection was completed without incident and the colleague who made that comment testified she never felt unsafe.

During the morning of Feb. 1, 2022, it came to the attention of management that someone had taped the switch on the speeder in question.

When Quiambao and his crew was confronted, he promptly acknowledged he had done it. The company started a safety and labour relations investigation and he was put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome.

‘Dumbest decision of my life’

Quiambao told investigators that he realized he made a mistake and should have asked his crew about it.

Concerns were raised during the investigation about the ramifications of taping down the switch. For example, if Quiambao had a medical emergency, it could have seriously injured or killed a worker and caused significant damage to infrastructure.

At the end of the investigation, BCRTC terminated his employment, citing the importance of safety in the workplace and also an apparent lack of remorse.

Quiambao testified that he knew he should not have taped the switch, acknowledged that it was misconduct and called in the “dumbest decision of my life.” He also testified about the personal hardships he was facing – a single father of two teenage children with no family support. He does not have any certifications or special qualifications and the job he found paid significantly less than BCRTC.

The arbitrator’s ruling

The arbitrator did not close over the importance of safety in the workplace.

“The breach of a safety rule has been described as one of the most serious types of workplace offences, and can justify a much harsher penalty then what would be assessed where progressive discipline is to be applied,” the arbitrator said.

“I find (taping the switch) is a serious safety infraction,” the arbitrator said.

Some form of discipline was undoubtedly warranted, but termination was simply too harsh a penalty in this case.

The arbitrator cast doubt on how serious the violation was – “I am not persuaded that the existence of the risk of a ‘potential kill’ or ‘near miss,’ as assumed by BCRTC, is supported by the evidence.”

The arbitrator also pointed to remorse on the worker’s behalf. While Quiambao did not report the misconduct himself, he promptly acknowledged he did it when confronted by management. The initial report, conducted in the first 24 hours, showed that he expressly acknowledged he made a mistake.

The arbitrator also took into account his eight years of discipline-free service and pointed to the financial hardship he had faced since being fired.

None of that detracts from the seriousness of the misconduct, the arbitrator said. But the employment relationship was salvageable, and a 10-day unpaid suspension was the more appropriate penalty.

“Such a lengthy suspension for a mid-service employee with no discipline record is significant,” said the arbitrator. “It sends a message to both (Quiambao) and to other employees in the workplace regarding the seriousness and unacceptability of the misconduct, underscores the importance of safety, and acts as deterrence of such conduct in future.”

For more information see British Columbia Rapid Transit Company Ltd. v CUPE, Local 7000, 2022 CanLII 67647 (BC LA)


About Todd Humber 17 Articles
Todd Humber is the editor-in-chief of North Wall Media, publishers of HR Law Canada.