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Dangerous Disability: Must You Accommodate Diabetic Worker Who Poses a Safety Risk?

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in Case In Point,Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

You must grant “reasonable” work accommodations to disabled employees. But what if the person’s disability could actually create a safety threat in the workplace? Must you still keep him in that job?

Case in Point: Martin Onken worked as a welder in an Iowa manufacturing plant.  He was a diabetic who suffered from hypoglycemia, a drop in blood sugar. More than 6% of adult Americans—or 17 million people—are currently diagnosed with diabetes. About one million new cases are diagnosed every year.

Onken’s doctor and employer encouraged him to regularly monitor his blood sugar and take snack breaks during work. Unfortunately, Onken’s condition made it difficult for him to predict when his blood sugar would drop. And sometimes, those episodes of low blood sugar made him aggressive toward his co-workers.

During one such episode, Onken became physically aggressive, threatened violence, ran from his workstation and screamed obscenities at co-workers and emergency medical personnel.

The company fired Onken after a doctor’s report said Onken wouldn’t be able to completely anticipate or prevent such hypoglycemic episodes in the future.

Onken sued, saying the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required the company to accommodate his disability.

But the company countered that argument, saying Onken wasn’t qualified for ADA protection because he posed a “direct threat” to the safety of others. The ADA says direct threat includes a “significant risk” to the health and safety of others that can't be eliminated by reasonable accommodation. (Onken v. McNeilus Truck & Mfg. Inc., N.D. Iowa, 7/10/09)

What happened next…and what lessons can be learned?

The court sided with the company, saying it had a legitimate defense that Onken was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he posed a direct threat to the safety of his co-workers. (The EEOC has said that to determine whether an employee poses a direct threat, employers and courts should consider the duration of the risk and the likelihood and severity of the potential harm.)

As this court noted, “The plant was full of dangers for a person who is unable to control his or her actions and Onken admits that when he is hypoglycemic, he is unable to control his actions.” There were no reasonable accommodation that would allow him to continue working without posing a “significant safety risk.”

3 Lessons Learned Without Going to Court

1. Safety always trumps. Employers often complain that the ADA unjustly protects everyone. But here is a perfect example where safety issues trump ADA protections.

2. Reasonableness is always recognized. The court noted the employer tried to offer reasonable accommodations, including breaks for sugar checks and snacks. Even so, the condition was uncontrollable.

3. Two heads are always better. The ADA is complicated, and terminating someone with a disability can be a risk. Get a second opinion before you lower the axe.

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