‘May Cause Drowsiness, Use Caution Around Machinery’

Frank Harty of the Iowa law firm Nyemaster Goode describes a new kind of employer headache arising from the Obama administration’s hardline enforcement efforts on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) front:

…Common sense dictates that any medication that carries with it a warning that it “may cause drowsiness” or that the patient should “use caution” if operating machinery may pose a risk in the workplace. It is for this reason that many employers adopt a policy requiring employees to self report the use of prescription pain killers. This is especially important in potentially dangerous workplaces such as manufacturing and construction.

In a recent action that defies common sense, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that such policies are unlawful under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits an employer from conducting “medical inquiries” without a business reason to do so. In EEOC v. Product Fabricators, Inc., an action in federal court in Minnesota, the EEOC required a manufacturing employer to abandon its policy of encouraging employees to inform supervisors if they are under the influence of narcotic pain killers such as Vicodin. The EEOC took the position that an employer cannot ask about prescription pain killer usage unless it has “objective” evidence that an employee is impaired on the job.

This places employers in a very difficult position….

In particular, it puts employers to a choice between waiting until there is an actual accident caused by an employee’s nodding off or zoning out – thus at last providing “objective” evidence of risk – and the risk of a large judgment payable to an employee who has not yet gotten into accidents and whose lawyer will claim that there was no objective evidence to support a suspicion of impairment.

The Eighth Circuit upheld the agency’s stance earlier this year and an EEOC press release from February notes that the company agreed to pay $40,000 to settle the dispute. Harty notes that one “thing is certain: it will be employers, not the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who deal with the fallout from the loss of life and limb in the workplace.”