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Don’t bend on disability accommodations if they could compromise safety

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

It’s usually easy to accommodate employees’ everyday health problems, and employers should always be willing to consider making minor adjustments in work conditions.

But be very cautious about making accommodations that could affect workplace safety. Allowing an employee to bypass safety procedures or have a co-worker help her with them is almost always a bad idea. For example, what if an employee’s need for assistance meant she wouldn’t be able to handle an emergency when no help was available?

In one recent case, that was sufficient justification to eliminate an accommodation and insist that the employee show she could perform the function without help.

Recent case: Catherine Armbrester worked as a school bus driver. As part of her morning work routine, she was required to lift the hood on her bus and inspect the engine for obvious problems. Because of a neck injury, she couldn’t easily do that.

At first, a supervisor lifted the hood for her as a reasonable accommodation. Then someone questioned what would happen if Armbrester had to lift the hood along the side of the road, or lift children out of her bus during an emergency. The school system said she had to be able to lift the hood without accommodations.

She sued after she was fired for unrelated reasons. Armbrester claimed that denying the accommodation was disability discrimination.

The court tossed out her case, reasoning that the lifting requirement was legitimate—and that no accommodation was possible. (Armbrester v. Talladega City Board of Education, No. 08-12239, 11th Cir., 2009)

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