Supreme Court: Employees not Entitled to Jobs that Jeopardize Health

June 11, 2002
In a case that further defines the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and could have far-reaching consequences, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied Mario Echazabal the right to work at a job that threatens his health and safety.

Echazabal argued that the ADA entitled him to keep his job at the Chevron facility in El Segundo, Calif., even though the chemicals at the facility could aggravate his liver ailment. Echazabal claimed he should be able to decide for himself whether to risk his health by working in the Chevron facility. But the justices of the Supreme Court disagreed and ruled 9-0 to reverse a lower court ruling that gave Echazabal his job back and sent the case back to the lower court.

In the decision, Justice David Souter wrote the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "was certainly acting within the reasonable zone when it saw a difference between rejecting workplace paternalism and ignoring specific and documented risks to the employee himself, even if the employee would take his chances for the sake of getting a job."

Echazabal worked as an employee for Chevron contractors for more than 20 years, but was denied employment by Chevron following a physical that revealed he suffered from chronic hepatitis C, a condition that could be aggravated by chemicals at the facility. Chevron asked the contractor to fire or reassign Echazabal, and he was fired. He sued to be reinstated, and won in lower courts.

In six cases involving the workplace and worker rights under ADA, the court has ruled against the worker each time. "We want employers to care about their employees," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told Echazabal's attorney. "You want employers to take a position that's completely barbarous."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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