As reported earlier in our blog [Shedding a little light on sex in the course of employment /Sept 17], an employer’s assessment of the many and varied ways in which employees can get themselves in trouble is unlikely ever to match the reality.

As reported by one of the Polish daily newspapers last week, two employees waiting for their shift to start engaged in a discussion in the factory changing-room. Having exchanged their opinions on the subject (allegedly work-related), they decided to reinforce their respective arguments with some physical violence. As a result, one’s nose was broken after a short but intense encounter with the skull of the other. The question then arose as to whether this injury counts as an “accident at work”.  If so, this would mean that the injured employee was entitled to full sick leave benefits and if by any chance his clothes were spoilt due to the “accident” (blood can stain so badly), the employer would be liable for them as well.

Polish law defines “accident at work” as a sudden occurrence (apparently so for the injured one, otherwise he would have moved away), caused by an external factor (the other employee’s sudden escalation of his argument), causing injury (also not disputed). What was lacking, according to the employer and the Court of first instance, was any link with work. It was just an argument pursued by other means.  On this basis, the employee’s claims under the accident at work procedure were dismissed.

However, the Court of Appeal in turn decided that there was a sufficient link or relationship between the work and the accident.  The employees were at the employer’s premises, getting dressed and preparing for their shift to start so this was not actually all that surprising as conclusions go.  It was not a coincidence or breach of duties on the part of the employees to be there – on the contrary, it was their obligation to get ready to start their work and they did it before every shift. What is interesting in this case is a reported statement of the Court of Appeal that the link between the incident and work was even stronger as the employees were arguing about work (though given all the other factors it is hard to see that the outcome would have been different if it were just politics, football or sex in the usual way).

According to the reports, the Polish Supreme Court therefore decided that a fight between employees in a work changing-room before their shift, during performance of the ordinary preparatory activities for work, is to be considered as an accident at work.

It is undisputable that the employer is liable for health and safety at the workplace and should take steps to counter-act accidents at work. What conclusions to draw from the Court’s alleged statement about the subject matter of the dispute?  How should an employer seek to pre-empt the sort of “accident” consisting of a violent argument?  Possibly some new instructions to the employees – if you are going to fight about work, do it out of hours, off the premises and in your own clothes?   And may the best man win.