Health, Safety and Disabilities: Employers Hoping for Clarity from Supreme Court

Can the American with Disabilities Act require employers to hire a worker for a job, even though that job may pose a direct threat to the worker's safety and health?

Can the American with Disabilities Act require employers to hire a worker for a job, even though that job may pose a direct threat to the worker''s safety and health?

That''s one of the questions facing the Supreme Court when it hears oral arguments on Chevron v. Echazabal later this month.

"This case will have a real impact on employers around the country," said Peter Susser, managing shareholder at Littler Mendelson, at a National Association of Manufacturer''s press briefing last week in Washington, DC.

Mario Echazabal applied for a position at Chevron twice, once in 1992 and again 1995, and he was turned down both times because the company thought the job he wanted could kill him.

Chevron Dr. Philip Baily determined that Echazabal had hepatitis C, "an uncorrectable liver abnormality," and should avoid exposure to solvents or other liver toxic chemicals in order "not to exacerbate his liver problems."

Echazabal wanted to work in a Chevron coker unit, extracting petroleum products from crude oil, where he would be exposed to hydrocarbons, solvents and chemicals that could kill him. In the meantime, he continued to work for Chevron contractors at a company refinery in Segundo, Calif., where he had been since 1972.

When Echazabal applied for the job a second time in 1995, Chevron not only turned him down, but wrote the contractor asking that Echazabal be removed from the refinery or be placed in a job that eliminated his exposure to solvents and hazardous chemicals.

Echazabal then filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission and also filed suit in state court, alleging that Chevron had discriminated against him on the basis of a disability, violating the American with Disabilities Act.

According to Echazabal''s attorney, his doctors believe he can go back to work and that the threats he faces are no greater than those confronting anyone else. Chevron''s doctors disagree, and the company maintains it would be wrong knowingly to hire a worker for a job that threatens his well-being.

A federal judge in California granted summary judgment to Chevron, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Echazabal. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case Feb. 27.

For more information on the Chevron v Echazabal case, go to supreme.lp.findlaw.com/supreme_court/docket/2001/february.html.

by James Nash

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