A reader has posted an interesting workplace question:
I currently work at a bicycle store, about 20 FT employees, where I am the Customer Service Manager. There are 14 “floor” workers, and 6 “desk” people (those who sit at a computer). There is one employee here that has diagnosed severe asthma reactions when she comes into contact with fumes of any kind: aerosol (they repair bikes in the front of the store), perfume, lotions and even SOAP, hairspray, etc, etc. Now, everyone here cannot, for lack of a better way to explain this, practice their normal hygiene due to this. The question is, if this employee has a condition that’s that severe, where she has a reaction and then has to leave, and therefore is compromising the routine and hygiene of 19 other employees (who are very disgruntled about this, I might add), what can be done? Is this a setting that she should be working in? Wouldn’t she qualify for disability (she has been under a Dr.’s care for quite some time regarding this)? Does everyone else have to accept compromising and changing their own lives because of this? What can be done? We are on the verge of walk-outs and some very unhappy workers because of this.
Whether this person’s sensitivities qualify as a disability requiring accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is something that is determined on a case-by-case basis. Under the ADA an individual may have a “disability,” as defined by the Act if their illness or condition substantially limits one or more major life activities, they have a history of such impairment, or are regarded as having such impairment. While you provide a number of interesting facts, you would be wise to consult with an attorney specializing in this area as they will need more information before they can give you a legal advice about that.
If the ADA does apply, one thing is for sure, you won’t want to ignore its requirements.
Some years ago a radio disc jockey developed a chemical sensitivity as a result of a guest from a previous show spilling acetone in the broadcast booth. The DJ then said a co-worker’s perfume gave her breathing problems and damaged her vocal chords. The radio station tried to accommodate her by asking the co-worker to stop wearing perfume and by modifying work schedules, but in the end the DJ was fired and sued claiming the station retaliated against her because she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A jury awarded the DJ $7 million was in punitive damage, $2 million for mental anguish and emotional distress and another $1.6 million for past and future wages.
Chemical sensitivities are serious business. The DJ case is a cautionary tale about how one issue can quickly escalate into another if not managed properly.
The best thing you can do is these types of situations is to get legal advice from a lawyer who can discuss your specific situation with you in detail. In preparation for that meeting, you might want to read about the topic and learn about how other employers have coped with such situations by clicking here.