In dealing with occupational health matters, employers are bound by a large number of obligations, including:
The employer’s ‘responsibility’ in the broad sense is historically at the origin of the emergence of social law, and it still constitutes its living heart today. It is revealing that, in current legislation, taking on responsibility for the cost of insurance covering accidents at work is the first element of the ‘social responsibility’ of platforms for self-employed workers (Labour Code, art. L. 7342-2 ; D. 7342-1 and -2).
Unfortunately, this corporate responsibility is too often confused with a sort of guilt. It is therefore worth recalling what should be obvious: just because an employer has obligations towards sick or injured employees or those who are unfit for work does not necessarily mean that the organisation or work should be implicated. An employer can be accountable without being guilty.
Below are two examples.
Incapacity for any employment position
An employee is declared unfit by the occupational physician, who states in his or her opinion that retaining the employee in any employment would be seriously prejudicial to his or her health. This expression is intended to exempt the employer from taking action to try to redeploy the employee, when it appears to the occupational physician that the employee can under no circumstances be redeployed (Labour Code, art. L.1226-2-1 and -12, R. 4624-42).
However, this expression is sometimes interpreted as indicating that the employee’s incapacity was caused by his or her work, in other words, that the employee’s incapacity is of professional origin. This interpretation is, of course, totally erroneous: an incapacity to work with absolutely no possibility for redeployment can perfectly well have its origin in the employee’s specific health problems. This type of statement is completely neutral as to the origin of the incapacity.
As a result:
Death at work
Another example where there is a risk of confusion is illustrated by recent decisions: an employee dies of a heart attack at work. Does this death constitute a workplace accident? A Court of Appeal held that it did not, with the following reasoning:
‘the administrative investigation had not identified any significant cause of professional stress; on the contrary, the atmosphere is described as very good, the victim being described as a man who is very professionally committed, very balanced, warm and smiling, not a stressed person; the meeting in which the victim was to participate, which had barely begun, presented no particular difficulty, especially since the results to be presented there were good and there was no reason to consider that the victim could be put, in any way, in difficulty; the victim’s relations with his new superior, who arrived in August, were very constructive and the dialogue very open, the latter’s management being more in line with the victim’s philosophy.’
(CA Versailles, 12 April 2018, n°17/03786).
The Court of Cassation annulled this decision, recalling a principle: an accident that takes place at work is presumed to be an accident at work, unless it is established that the injury has a cause totally unrelated to work (Cass. civ. 2, 11 July 2019, n° 18-19.160).
The Court of Appeal’s reasoning revealed an absence of reference points: a work accident can be recognised to have occurred without establishing that working conditions had deteriorated, and therefore without assuming or implying any form of fault on the part of the employer. If there is a need to identify the employer’s liability, that would take place in a different context, that of an action seeking to identify an ‘inexcusable fault’ on the part of the employer (Sec. Ct. soc., art. L. 452-1 et seq.).
There are two lessons to be drawn from this decision: