Special Topics in Safety Management

Injured During Horseplay—Who Pays?

The following is based on an actual workers’ compensation case in Pennsylvania, in which hard lessons were learned by the employees involved—and by the employer.

Warehouse supervisor Bill Muller had a problem. One of his order selectors was out of work with a broken leg caused by horseplay. And Muller had conflicting stories about the incident. The stories, according to a case study on our sister website Safety.BLR.com, went something like this.

Joe Thomas, the worker with the broken leg, said: "I was out on the loading dock looking for some shrink wrap when Mickey Connery [a co-worker] grabbed me from behind and shouted, ‘Let’s get him.’ Then Ken Caputo grabbed me from the front, pinning my arms so I couldn’t move. The two of them pulled me across the floor. All the time, I was asking them to stop. At that point, a guy came by on a forklift, beeped the horn at us, and told us to get out of the way. So Connery and Caputo let me go. But as I was turning around to walk away, Connery tackled me. I heard a loud crack as we fell to the ground, with Connery on top of me. I ended up in the hospital with a broken leg."


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Conflicting Stories

But Mickey Connery gave a different version of events, saying: "I was joking around with Joe. We started pushing each other. And after a little bit we got locked in with one another. We fell to the ground. I didn’t mean to hurt Joe. We were just fooling around. I know horseplay’s against the rules, but Joe’s in it as much as I was."

Ken Caputo told a similar story: "Mickey may have grabbed Joe and tried to trip him just before the fall. But they were both wrestling with one another. You know, fun and games on the loading dock. That’s all it was. They weren’t fighting or anything."

Another warehouse worker who witnessed the event told Muller that he saw Thomas and Connery engaged in a "wrestling match" that went on for about 10 minutes until the two men fell backwards and Thomas screamed in pain.

After investigating the incident, Muller came to the conclusion that all three employees were probably engaging in horseplay. He disciplined Connery and Caputo and intended to do the same with Thomas when he returned to work.

Fighting the Claim

Based on Muller’s investigation and intention to discipline Thomas for engaging in horseplay in violation of the organization’s safety policy, the employer decided to fight Thomas’s workers’ compensation claim. The employer argued that under the state’s law, an employee who participates in horseplay and is injured is not eligible for benefits.

Thomas argued that he was a victim, not a participant, and therefore he was eligible for benefits.


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The Decision

Choosing to believe that the injured employee was probably more of a victim in the incident than a willing participant, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Thomas could collect his workers’ compensation benefits.

Who knows what really happened in this case? The problem with horseplay is that it usually takes place when you’re not around, and when you investigate, you get contradictory stories. Dealing with incidents of horseplay after the fact is frustrating and difficult. That’s why it’s worth taking these steps to prevent it:

  • Hold a safety meeting about horseplay.
  • Review your horseplay policy.
  • Explain the consequences for violating the rules.
  • Emphasize that fooling around is hazardous.
  • Point out how often someone is injured as a result of horseplay.

In this case, an employee got his leg broken. That’s bad enough. But in some cases, workers have been killed. Don’t let it happen to your employees. Make sure employees understand that you have zero tolerance for horseplay.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some key concepts in training your employees about the dangers of horseplay.

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