ADA: You can deny jobs that threaten workers’ own safety, health

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

In a solid win for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't entitle employees to jobs that might endanger their health, even if they want to take the risk.

The 9-0 decision effectively ends employer fears of being forced to hire or keep an employee who puts his own health in jeopardy, and then being sued for deliberately endangering that worker. As one lawyer told the Wall Street Journal, the decision helps companies "avoid being complicit in a suicide attempt."

The ruling continues the Supreme Court's narrowing of the ADA: In six cases involving worker rights under the law, employers have won each time.

The case involved oil refinery worker Mario Echazabal, who was rejected for a permanent job with Chevron after the company learned he had chronic hepatitis. Chevron said the job's chemical exposures would likely make Echazabal's condition worse and perhaps prove fatal. Echazabal sued, saying he alone should be able to decide whether to take the risk. He won in a lower court, but the high court disagreed.

It's always been clear that you could deny a job if a person's medical condition posed a threat to co-workers or customers. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also said the ADA lets employers refuse to hire disabled workers if they pose a direct threat to themselves. The high court said the EEOC's interpretation was right. (Chevron USA Inc. v. Echazabal, No. 01-1406)

Advice: This ruling lets you use the "direct threat to self" defense to block a disabled person who applies for a job that threatens his own safety. But it doesn't give you carte blanche to claim unilaterally that a disabled employee can't perform a job for health reasons.

Each person's condition and job still must be judged on a case-by-case basis. Rely on the latest medical guidelines and medial advice to determine the likelihood of personal injury risked in a job.

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