Disabled Employees May Not Be Able to Circumvent Critical Workplace Safety Rules Despite ADA

Updated: May 17, 2021

By Paula Jackson

February 23, 2021

According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, employers can potentially terminate employees with disabilities that prevent them from following critical workplace safety rules.[1] In that case, the employer had a safety rule that workers had to wear steel-toed safety shoes inside its factory. However, the employee at issue had a foot condition that prevented her from wearing steel-toed safety shoes.[2] The court determined that the employer’s right to enforce its safety rule trumped its obligation to provide ADA accommodations to the employee seeking to avoid compliance with that rule. Essentially, the court determined that the employee “did not meet the ADA’s definition of a ‘qualified individual’ because she could not comply with a valid safety requirement for her position.”[3] The factory ultimately did not have to retain the employee since she could not wear steel-toed shoes as required by its safety rules.

However, employers should still use caution if contemplating following suit. First, before terminating an employee who seeks to avoid compliance with safety mandates due to a medical condition, it is advisable to seek legal counsel. Secondly, the employer should examine whether a reasonable accommodation would permit the employee to comply with the safety rule. For example, this employer explored reasonable accommodation options by attempting to find a custom-made steel-toed shoe that the employee could wear despite her medical condition.[4] Third, employers should ensure that the safety rule at issue is critical to workplace safety before terminating any employee for not being able to comply with it due to a disability. Notably, here, the employee did not challenge the safety rule as unnecessary, and the case might have turned out differently if the safety rule had not been imperative.[5]

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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] This case is Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., Case No. 19-1771 (4th Cir. Dec. 9, 2020), which can be found at http://isysweb.ca4.uscourts.gov/isysquery/8d6d2c04-2d54-464e-9e8f-b59be70b0f64/1/doc/. [2] Id. at 2-3. [3] Id. at 2, 7-9. [4] Id. at 4. The employer also re-evaluated whether this employee could be safely exempted from wearing the safety shoes and explored the possibility of moving her to an open position where safety shoes were not required. Id. [5] Id. at 2-3, 8. This employer had strong proof that its safety rule was required, including an independent safety audit, a corroborating OSHA standard, and the fact that an injury had already occurred when a worker failed to wear steel-toed safety shoes. Id.

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