Preventive Law for Employers
Disability, Ergonomics, Harassment and Discrimination

Ergonomics and Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA–Part 2

In the first part of this series, we reviewed the ADA’s mandate for reasonable accommodations, and why those accommodations are even more important under the ADA’s 2009 amendments. Many medical disabilities for which an employee may request reasonable accommodation have ergonomic aspects. In this part, we will look at a case study.

Joanie, a clerical employee, is returning to work after carpal tunnel surgery on both hands, related to severe hereditary arthritis. In her return-to-work note, Joanie’s orthopedist advises:

Typing/keyboard work for no more than 30 minutes per hour
Use of split keyboard
5 minute break each hour to rest and stretch/exercise
Maintenance of neutral posture while working

Since Joanie’s arthritis substantially limits her ability to perform manual tasks, she is an individual with a disability under the ADAAA, and the orthopedist’s note is certainly a request for a reasonable accommodation. But, before we get to the question of whether we have to make these accommodations for Joanie, we need some more information. We need to know what are her job duties, which are essential, and which are non-essential.

When we review Joanie’s job description we find:

• Essential functions:
– Entering laboratory data into computer program
– Performing quality assurance checks on data
– Producing routine reports
– Answering telephone, assisting callers, and taking messages
• Non-essential functions:
– Acting as back-up for time-keeper for her work area

Then, we review how Joanie does her work, and we find that she sits at a computer workstation, shared with workers on other shifts, with a pull-out keyboard tray and a mouse on the desk. The lab data she enters is from work done the night before, and Joanie does data entry for the first 3 hours every morning. The rest of her day is spent on telephone duty, QA checks, and reports, with intermittent keyboard use.

After this review, we come up with a number of possible accommodations to Joanie’s disability (ergonomics solutions in italics):

• Change the way work is done to reduce time on keyboard:
– Scanning lab data
– Dictating reports
• Restructure work to avoid long periods of keyboarding
Spread data entry out over the course of the day
– Build in short breaks
• Purchase equipment
Split keyboard, per doctor’s recommendation
– Adjustable tray that will hold keyboard and mouse
– Footrest
• Provide training
Proper posture
– Hand and wrist exercises
– Workstation adjustment: How to set the chair, monitor, etc. for optimal fit and efficiency
– Voice-recognition software

Armed with this analysis, we determine that scanning the lab data would not be a reasonable accommodation, because purchasing and customizing the necessary software and equipment would be prohibitively expensive, and, therefore, an undue hardship. But all of the other ideas seem reasonable, so we discuss them with Joanie, as the next step in the ADA interactive process. Joanie agrees that, with some training, she could use the voice-recognition software our organization already owns for dictating her reports. After talking with her supervisor, Joanie reports that she can reorganize her work day to split up the data entry into six 30-minute sessions. She also agrees to get coaching on proper posture and other ergonomic-related principles. We decide an adjustable tray is not needed if the chair is properly adjusted for Joanie, so we purchase the new keyboard and footrest (cost = $75), and arrange for Joanie to get voice-recognition software training and ergonomic-related instruction on the day she returns to work.

Six weeks later, we check in with Joanie and her supervisor. The supervisor is happy, since Joanie is meeting or exceeding all of the supervisor’s expectations for productivity and accuracy. Joanie reports that not only are her hands pain-free, but that she enjoys her more varied work day, now that data entry is spread throughout the day instead of consuming almost all of every morning.

Result: A successful accommodation, benefiting both the employer and employee.

Next time: A survey of recent ADA reasonable accommodation cases involving ergonomics.

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Who is Ann Kiernan?

Ann Kiernan is an employment lawyer who has been practicing law in New Jersey for more than 30 years. She represents only employers and management and regularly provides management training companies big and small. Employment law is constantly changing, and Ann is familiar how these changes affect employers. To keep up-to-date and learn what issues are currently affecting businesses and employers in New Jersey, read the blog.

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