Supreme Court Limits ADA Protection for Workers

In a session marked by an unusually high number of employment discrimination cases, the Supreme Court recently ruled for employers in three controversial Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases.

Employment discrimination and civil rights experts argue that, on the whole, management did better than employees.

Toyota vs. Williams was the first ADA decision to raise flags for some disability-rights groups.

In that case, the court, applying a test critics say is not written into the law, ruled the plaintiff, who had carpal tunnel syndrome, was not disabled under the ADA because she did not have impairments that restrict her from performing tasks of central importance to most people's daily lives, such as combing her hair or brushing her teeth.

After Toyota, employers seemingly scored again in two other ADA cases — U.S. Airways vs. Barnett in May and Chevron vs. Echazabal in June.

In Chevron, the high court ruled that employers may refuse to hire a disabled worker when the company determines the job would threaten the worker’s life or health.

Chevron, the company in question, had refused to give a job in its oil refinery to a worker who has hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease, based on its view that airborne toxins in the plant would make his liver worse and could kill him. The worker insisted that he was the best judge of the risk to himself, and he sued Chevron for job discrimination under the ADA.

In US Airways vs. Barnett, the court said seniority usually trumps a disabled employee's right to be reassigned to another job. It also provided that employees may present evidence of special circumstances that would make an exception to a seniority rule reasonable under the law.

Though displeasure with the ADA rulings gain the most attention, there were some clear victories for workers during the session, too.

In EEOC vs. Waffle House, the court said the federal agency may file lawsuits on behalf of workers who are barred from suing their employers under mandatory arbitration agreements.

The most recent victory was the National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak) vs. Morgan case in which the court barred the 180- to 300-day statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit in hostile work environment cases.

OSHA Clarifies Policy on Contaminated Needles

OSHA is clarifying its policy on the prohibition of removing contaminated needles from blood tube holders to reduce the dangers of needlesticks for those working in health-care facilities.
The bloodborne-pathogens standard requires blood-tube holders with needles attached to be immediately discarded into a sharps container. In the revised bloodborne pathogens directive, OSHA explains that removing the needles exposes employees to additional risk.
Further explanation is available in a letter of interpretation on OSHA’S Web site.

Indoor Air Quality

IAQ Action: California Bill to Include Cleaning Products

Building occupants and visitors are aware of the link between health and the indoor environment, and high-profile indoor air quality (IAQ) cases keep the issue at the forefront of their minds.

Contractors also should watch headlines and stay abreast of IAQ issues for their customers.

For example, a proposed bill in California (AB 2223) will require the state to establish voluntary guidelines for IAQ in public schools. Introduced by Assemblyman Fred Keeley in February, the bill would establish recommendations for the construction, renovation and routine maintenance of schools to protect and enhance IAQ. Such guidelines would cover cleaning products.

Also under the proposed bill, manufacturers will be required to “promote, to the extent possible, the selection, use, and proper storage of cleaning and maintenance materials that will not unnecessarily degrade indoor air quality, considering product efficacy, durability, safety, cost, energy efficiency, and the needs of the purchaser.”

The bill already has passed the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials. The bill next must pass the Senate Appropriations Committee.

If the Senate passes legislation, the guidelines will go into effect Jan. 1, 2004, according to a Keeley legislative aide. School districts then will have six months to vote on whether they will adopt the guidelines.

This information is intended as a summary of legal information and should in no way be construed as legal advice. Contact your attorney before proceeding with any legal action.