Dealing with Safety Concerns on the Job

Dealing with Safety Concerns on the Job

When it comes to safety concerns, an employer should be careful not to act on the basis of myths, fears, or stereotypes about diabetes. Instead, the employer should evaluate each individual on her skills, knowledge, experience, and how having diabetes affects her. In other words, an employer should determine whether a specific applicant or employee would pose a "direct threat" or significant risk of substantial harm to himself or others that cannot be reduced or eliminated through reasonable accommodation.

This assessment must be based on objective, factual evidence, including the best recent medical evidence and advances to treat and control diabetes.

12. May an employer ask an employee questions about his diabetes or send him for a medical exam if it has safety concerns?

An employer may ask an employee about his diabetes when it has a reason to believe that the employee may pose a "direct threat" to himself or others. An employer should make sure that its safety concerns are based on objective evidence and not general assumptions.

Example: An ironworker works at construction sites hoisting iron beams weighing several tons. A rigger on the ground helps him load the beams, and several other workers help him to position them. During a break, the supervisor becomes concerned because the ironworker is sweating and shaking. The employee explains that he has diabetes and that his blood sugar has dropped too low. The supervisor may require the ironworker to have a medical exam or submit documentation from his doctor indicating that he can safely perform his job.

Example: The owner of a daycare center knows that one of her teachers has diabetes. She becomes concerned that the teacher might lapse into a coma when she sees the teacher eat a piece of cake at a child's birthday party. Although many people believe that individuals with diabetes should never eat sugar or sweets, this is a myth. The owner, therefore, cannot ask the teacher any questions about her diabetes because she does not have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that the teacher is posing a direct threat to the safety of herself or others.

13. May an employer require an employee who has been on leave because of diabetes to submit to a medical exam or provide medical documentation before allowing him to return to work?

Yes, but only if the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee may be unable to perform his job or may pose a direct threat to himself or others. Any inquiries or examination must be limited to obtaining only the information needed to make an assessment of the employee's present ability to safely perform his job.

Example: A telephone repairman had a hypoglycemic episode right before climbing a pole and was unable to do his job. When the repairman explained that he recently had begun a different insulin regime and that his blood sugar levels occasionally dropped too low, his supervisor sent him home. Given the safety risks associated with the repairman's job, his change in medication, and his hypoglycemic reaction, the employer may ask him to submit to a medical exam or provide medical documentation indicating that he can safely perform his job without posing a direct threat before allowing him to return to work.

Example: A filing clerk, who was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, took a week of approved leave to attend a class on diabetes management. Under these circumstances, the employer may not require the clerk to have a medical exam or provide medical documentation before allowing her to return to work because there is no indication that the employee's diabetes will prevent her from doing her job or will pose a direct threat.

14. What should an employer do when another federal law prohibits it from hiring anyone who takes insulin?

If a federal law prohibits an employer from hiring a person who takes insulin, the employer would not be liable under the ADA. The employer should be certain, however, that compliance with the law actually is required, not voluntary. The employer also should be sure that the law does not contain any exceptions or waivers. For example, the Department of Transportation has issued exemptions to certain insulin-treated diabetic drivers of commercial motor vehicles.

Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

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by Brenda Bell
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