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Eli has worked on the assembly line for more than 10 years, despite having slowly lost most of his vision. He�s able to still do his job, except he can�t see when an alarm flashes to indicate a machine malfunction that could cause injuries.

What should the employer do?

When considering the risks between an employee�s disability and safety, all employers (including Eli�s) should be careful not to act based on myths, fears, or stereotypes about vision impairments.

Only when an employee poses a �direct threat� are employers allowed to exclude an individual with a vision impairment from a job for safety reasons. A �direct threat� means there is a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that employers cannot eliminate or reduce through reasonable accommodation.

Determining a direct threat

The risk of harm must be serious and likely to occur, not remote or speculative. Employers must take steps to determine if there is a direct threat:

  1. Conduct an individualized assessment of an employee�s ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. Base this determination on reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence.
  2. Evaluate whether there is a significant risk of substantial harm by considering the:
    • Duration of the risk;
    • Nature and severity of the potential harm;
    • Likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and
    • Imminence of the potential harm.
  3. Determine whether any reasonable accommodation would reduce or eliminate the risk.

Workplace accommodations

When an employee asks for a workplace change due to a medical condition, employers� obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are triggered. These include engaging in an interactive process (i.e., discussion) with the employee. The focus should be on identifying an effective accommodation.

Back to Eli

In the opening story, Eli didn�t specifically request a workplace accommodation, but the employer had concerns. Rather than discharging Eli, the employer should consider whether installing an audio alarm, or other reasonable accommodation, would be a safer, yet effective option.

The bottom line

If it would not impose an undue hardship, then the employer must provide the accommodation.

In late July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance on Visual Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This can be a good reminder of employers� ADA requirements.

Key to remember: Employers often look at situations through a focused lens, and don�t look at the big picture that could include their ADA obligations. Doing so can risk violating the ADA, which often results in hefty penalties.