Safety-Sensitive Jobs & the Americans with Disabilities Act

People with epilepsy are successfully employed in a variety of jobs that might be considered high-risk: police officer, firefighter, welder, butcher, construction worker, etc. Epilepsy is a highly variable disorder and it is difficult to generalize about safety issues. Since the term "epilepsy" refers to a broad range of symptoms and underlying causes, the Epilepsy Foundation advocates individualized determinations when epilepsy appears to be relevant to job hiring and placement decisions. Individual evaluations should take into account the type of job, the required tasks, the degree of seizure control, the type(s) of seizures, whether the person has an aura (warning), the person's reliability in taking prescribed anticonvulsant medication, any side effects of such medication, and any accommodations which would help the person do the job.

Employers often raise safety concerns and may try to exclude people with epilepsy from jobs involving public safety.

It may be useful to point out to employers that most people with epilepsy can be safely licensed to drive, and the current trend is to require a three-month seizure- free period prior to licensing. Surely, driving is more hazardous than the vast majority of jobs available in the U.S.

People with disabilities are protected from discrimination by a variety of federal and state laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was passed by Congress and signed into law on July 26, 1990. The ADA grants civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those granted to women and minorities. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual's disability in employment, by state and local governments and their instrumentalities, by public accommodations, in public and private transportation and in communications. The ADA grants all individuals with disabilities uniform protections regardless of which state they live in.

Under the ADA, employers may not exclude employees for safety reasons unless there is specific medical documentation, reflecting current medical knowledge, that the individual would pose a "direct threat" to health and safety. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is the federal agency implementing the private employment section of the ADA, has defined "direct threat" as a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. The determination that an individual poses a "direct threat" is to be made on a case by case assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. The employer must identify the specific risk posed by the individual. The employer's assessment is to be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best objective evidence.

In determining whether an individual would pose a direct threat, an employer should consider the following factors: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm.

If you believe you have been unfairly denied an opportunity in connection with a safety-sensitive job (or in another employment context), you may file a complaint with the EEOC or a state fair employment practices agency (for more information, see the Foundation's fact sheets on filing such a complaint). While you are not required to have an attorney to file a complaint, you may wish to consult a local attorney to learn how the law applies in your particular situation and for advice on how to proceed.

For more information:

 

Tips for Workplace Safety

  • Review any job-related risks that apply to you.
  • Can something be changed to improve safety?
  • Consider telling your co-workers you have epilepsy and the correct first aid for the type of seizure you have.
  • Climb only as high as you can safely fall, especially on a concrete floor, unless you are protected by a reliable safety harness and wearing a secure hard hat or helmet.
  • When working around machinery, check for safety features, such as automatic shut offs or safety guards.
  • Try to keep consistent work hours so you don't have to go a long time without sleep.
  • If you are sensitive to flashing lights, try to limit your exposure. Look away if you can. Use dark glasses. Some people think blue lenses work best.
  • Does stress make your seizures worse? Is your job a very stressful one? Look at ways to reduce stress on the job.
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