Try to accommodate chemically sensitive worker–but don’t be surprised if it’s impossible

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some people claim they are ex­­tremely sensitive to chemicals and that their condition is a disability that must be accommodated under the ADA. They may even find a doctor to agree. Employers then have no choice but to start the interactive accommodations process.

But if the list of chemicals is long and if it’s impossible to remove them from the work environment, you can try your best and may still have to admit defeat.

Recent case: Nada worked as a teacher in the Charlotte public school system. Her doctor certified that she had multiple chemical sensitivity and should not be exposed to common chemicals like bleach, paint, scented candles, tar, mold, new carpet, perfume, hand lotion and even deodorant.

The school district pledged to help Nada, to no avail. On one occasion, she complained that bleach used for routine cleaning had caused an attack. Then a student apparently wore perfume in the classroom. When the administration suggested posting a sign in the classroom requesting no perfume, she refused, claiming doing so would reveal her disability.

Nada then quit and sued, alleging failure to accommodate under the ADA.

But the court tossed out her case. It reasoned that in a classroom, it would be virtually impossible to accommodate Nada’s disability. Schools, it seems, are full of perfume, cologne and cleaning chemicals. It is unreasonable to ban them just to accommodate one person. (Feldman v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, No. 3:11-CV-34, WD NC, 2012)

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