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Company fails to pay workers for time to put on safety gear

Employers must do everything in their power to protect employees from work-related injuries and illnesses. Unfortunately, protection often comes after incidents have already occurred. Companies must change their focus and become more proactive.

Protection may be as simple the taking time to put on the proper attire that helps to shield them from getting hurt or becoming ill.

Employees at Hormel Foods Corp. are required to wear hard-hats, hearing/eye protection, hairnets and sanitary shoes. However, workers did not receive adequate time to put on the gear and clothing.

Compensation issues, but also safety concerns

Management at the Beloit canning plant refused to pay their workers for the time necessary to dress and undress. In a class action suit, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1473 alleged that Hormel violated Wisconsin wage and hour laws.

In 2013, Rock County Circuit Judge Michael Fitzpatrick sided with 330 Hormel employees and awarded them $195,000 in back wages. On March 1, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the decision by a 4-2 margin. The high court cited Department of Workforce Development rules that require employees to be paid for time involving employer-required physical or mental exertion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Shirley Abrahamson added, "Cleanliness and food safety are 'intrinsic elements' of preparing and canning food at the Hormel canning facility."

While this case specifically addressed worker pay, safety is another issue. Rushing to dress could lead workers to skip steps. Failing to grab hearing or eye protection might result in serious workplace injury in the name of cost cutting.

Even if it involves "donning and doffing," legal intervention and a judge's ruling are sometimes necessary to protect workers.

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