June 19, 2007 > Watercooler Counsel
By Rich Proulx & Malinda Tuazon
Q: One of my employees just gave me a request for an ergonomic chair from her doctor; she's been getting back pain from sitting at her desk all day. I asked her a few questions about the extent to which her back pain impedes her ability to do her job or other things. She basically admitted to me that it's mostly uncomfortable, but not an impediment to her daily life activities. She said she wants to take measures to prevent future back injury or pain. This is obviously not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so am I required to get her this chair? The one she wants is about $800!
Irked by Ergonomics
A: From the way you handled the situation and evaluated your employee's potential disability, it sounds like you've been keeping up with our column! You're correct in that your employee would not currently be considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because she doesn't have an impairment that is substantially limiting in one or more major life activities. So, you wouldn't be required by that law to accommodate her. Ergonomics is a big business these days, and it's not because a bunch of medicine shows are going around peddling correct posture to cure all that ails you. There is mounting evidence that employers who attempt to adjust the work environment to meet employees' ergonomic needs save money in the long run by racking up fewer workers' compensation claims and other legal fees (usually charged for defending against claims of failure to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who believe they are entitled to them). OSHA has developed a program to support businesses in their compliance with regulations designed to prevent workplace injury (including back problems and repetitive stress injuries). Your best bet would be to consider the cost of the chair compared with the cost of a future workers' comp claim or a citation from OSHA or a state agency for failure to make a good-faith effort to prevent workplace injuries.
Our team of government experts would bend over backward to answer your questions. According to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain is the second leading cause of all physician visits in the U.S. June is Correct Posture Month-a perfect time to make a new ergonomic resolution! Send your questions to Watercooler.Counsel@eeoc.gov. Rich is a former Supervisory Investigator and Malinda is a current Federal Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission www.eeoc.gov. Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.