Can an employee be "worked to death?" According to the family of a nurse, who died in a single-car accident on her way home from work, the answer is yes.
Beth Jasper died on her way home from a 12-hour shift as a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio after her car veered off the road, jumped an embankment and struck a tree. The complaint alleges that on the night of the accident, Jasper told other nurses she was "really stressed" and "hadn't eaten," and that she likely fell asleep at the wheel. Her family claims that fatigue from excessive work was the primary cause of the fatal accident.
The lawsuit claims Jasper often had to work through breaks and pick up additional shifts because the hospital was regularly understaffed. Additionally, as one of the few nurses at the hospital qualified to work the dialysis machines that were critical to patient care, Jasper was routinely called into work while off duty. Despite complaints to hospital administrators about the staffing conditions — including concerns expressed by Jasper's immediate supervisor about her specific situation — the hospital did nothing to address the staffing issue. Jasper's family points out that although chronic understaffing at hospitals is an industry-wide problem, it could have been avoided by implementing safe staffing ratios.
While employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment for employees, what does the law require once they head home? After all, an employer has no control or authority over employees once they leave the workplace and employees should be responsible for personal decisions made outside of work. For these reasons, plaintiffs often find it difficult to prevail in cases like this, with employers arguing that Jasper was responsible for knowing whether she was too tired to drive or not.
On the other hand, courts have held employers responsible where an accident was foreseeable and they took no action to prevent injury or illness— e.g., if they knew she was too tired to drive but did not intervene. However, for an employer to be liable there must be a direct link between the employment and the injury, without any superseding or intervening factors.
Regardless of the outcome, this case serves as a reminder to employers of the importance of monitoring workplace conditions and implementing policies to prevent undue stress, illness and injury. Whenever any aspect of employment is causing problems for employees — whether on or off the clock — employers should attempt to determine if the situation can be improved. In this case, the employer could have implemented policies prohibiting mandatory overtime and excessive workloads, routinely monitored staff work hours, and used flexible scheduling when possible.
Addressing sources of workplace stress not only improves workplace safety, but increases employee morale and productivity.