Balancing act

by Richard Alaniz
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According to a study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State Univ., disabled workers are more than twice as likely to suffer an occupational injury as non-disabled workers.

To ensure a safe workplace while fully complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers need to understand their rights and responsibilities, as well as the rights of job applicants and employees.

Employers can consider safety issues when hiring, but they must tread carefully to ensure they are acting legally. According to the EEOC, the ADA “expressly permits” employers to set qualification standards that will exclude individuals who pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves and others, if a reasonable accommodation cannot lower the risk to an acceptable level.

To avoid complications that can be associated with hiring people with disabilities, consider these points:

• Take a group approach – Getting a handle on the topic should involve a wide range of groups within the company, including legal counsel, HR, risk assessment, accident prevention, training and anyone who has hiring or oversight authority, as well as outside experts, including legal counsel.

• Take a fresh look at the working environment – Some jobs present obvious risks for all employees, disabled or not. Some less obvious risk factors for disabled employees can include poor lighting and narrow hallways. Employers should review all their workspaces to see what can be improved to make the workplace safer for disabled workers.

• Train…and train some more – When faced with issues involving ADA claims and reasonable accommodations, companies need consistent policies and approaches and thorough training so that everyone understands their roles and the company’s expectations. Along with training, employers should encourage all employees to escalate concerns and questions around disability matters. The company should identify exactly who to direct questions to, and that person or those people should be easily accessible and responsive.

• Forget the one-size-fits-all approach – When considering whether a disabled worker would present a safety hazard for a particular position, companies should examine all the variables. This includes the type and level of disability of the job applicant or employee and the specific demands of each job.

• Develop a dialogue – Under the ADA, when employees request a reasonable accommodation, managers and supervisors need to approach the conversation with an open mind and try to work with the employee to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone.

• Plan for the unexpected – Safety can be compromised during day-to-day routines, but emergency situations can represent safety challenges for any employee; this can be particularly true for employees with disabilities.

• Write everything down – Documentation is the key to maintaining consistent policies.

Workers and employers want a safe workplace, and the government wants to ensure that disabled employees have opportunities to work. In order to do so, companies need to understand their obligations under all the relevant regulations.

Richard Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz and Schraeder, a national labor and employment firm based in Houston.

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