"Managers gone wild." ATCO worker shatters ankle at work, then his bosses make it much, much worse

While on the job as a powerline technician on October 6, 2022 a power pole slammed into Sean Mowat’s ankle, breaking it in at least two places. Then his day got really bad. 

Mowat, who works for ATCO in and around Grande Prairie, was taken to the hospital. After being admitted and treated and receiving a temporary cast Mowat was told to stay off the ankle, rest, eat and drink but start fasting at midnight for surgery on his shattered ankle the following morning. 

When Mowat stepped out of the emergency room doors at the Grande Prairie hospital his wife wanted to take him home to rest—but two ATCO supervisors had other plans. They wanted Mowat to immediately go for a drug and alcohol test as per company policy. 

Mowat was not mobile and was not given crutches by the hospital because he was too tall. One supervisor hustled Mowat into the back of his truck, an awkward fit because Mowat needed to keep his leg extended and the cab was relatively small. As Mowat was getting in he banged his shattered foot against the truck. 

“He was in extreme pain and felt like he was going to be sick to his stomach. He sat on his lunch kit on the road in front of the Emergency Department at the Hospital and was extremely upset,” reads the arbitrator’s decision on the grievance filed by Mowat’s union.  

Mowat, his wife and his union rep “became extremely concerned that ATCO’s insistence on Mowat going for a drug and alcohol test was causing a risk of aggravating his injury.”

After a tense exchange on the road directly in front of the emergency department entrance and an aborted attempt to get Mowat into another truck to go to the testing facility management finally relented. Mowat headed home to rest up and get fluids and food before his imminent surgery. 

Image via https://electric.atco.com/

But at some point, the managers changed their mind. At around 9 pm another ATCO supervisor showed up at Mowat’s home to force him to take the drug and alcohol test. Mowat’s 18-year-old daughter answered the door, and the ATCO supervisor walked right into Mowat’s house. Mowat’s daughter does not recall if he asked if he could come in nor does she remember giving him permission to do so. 

Instead of checking in on him or offering him some help or even having a genuine plan to get Mowat to a testing facility in a safe way the ATCO supervisor stood above Mowat holding the drug and alcohol testing pamphlet, threatening to Mowat that refusing to test is grounds for dismissal.

Mowat told him that he was not refusing to test but that he was refusing ATCO’s method of arranging to transport him to the test. While the ATCO supervisor was insistent in going to the facility Mowat testified that there didn’t seem to be a plan to transport him safely. 

During a heated discussion between Mowat’s wife, daughter and the ATCO supervisor over how to keep Mowat safe during transport Mowat passed out due to the trauma, the fatigue, lack of food and water, and the painkillers.

Even that was not enough for the ATCO supervisor to leave. When Mowat regained consciousness, the ATCO supervisor was still arguing with Mowat’s wife and daughter. Only after his daughter and wife made it clear that Mowat would not be going to get tested without a plan from ATCO that ensured that Mowat would not be injured further did the supervisor finally leave, after being in Mowat’s home for about an hour. 

Mowat’s union stepped up to grieve this absurd series of events.

The arbitrator, James Casey, found that ATCO was suffering from “tunnel-vision with an all-encompassing focus on fulfilling the requirements of their policy.” Casey found ATCO’s actions at Sean Mowat’s home constituted a breach of Mowat’s privacy rights, that ATCO failed to comply with its safety obligations and that it was an unreasonable exercise of management to demand he take the test. Casey awarded Mowat $7500 in general damages. 

Jason Foster, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, told us what happened to Mowat was a textbook case of abusive management—literally. 

“This is an amazing example of managers gone wild,” said Foster. “There is such a casual disregard for this worker’s health and safety. He’s clearly very injured but their policy trumped everything.”

“It speaks a lot to the culture that ATCO developed that a series of managers felt the need to take these excessive actions and not a single one slowed down and was a voice of reason, that maybe they could wait. That that didn’t occur to anyone was amazing.”

Foster plans to use an anonymized version of this arbitrator’s decision as an example in senior level labour relations classes on arbitration. 

“I think ATCO is extremely lucky to have gotten away with only paying him $7500. It could have been a much larger penalty if it had been investigated by OHS for example. That incident in the parking lot runs contrary to the employer’s responsibility to keep their workers safe,” said Foster. 

Craig Neuman, the lawyer for ATCO, said in his dissent that the testimony from Mowat family members had a “rehearsed feel” and he would have dismissed the grievance in its entirety.  

Mowat was never disciplined for not taking the drug test. Neither the Canadian Energy Workers’ Association, Mowat’s union, or ATCO commented when given the chance.