A recent Tennessee federal court decision illustrates the risks that can arise under the Americans with Disabilities Act when employers try to prevent workplace accidents through generalized medical screening mechanisms. In Bates v. Dura Automotive Systems, Inc., the employer became concerned that drug use at its manufacturing facility was causing a higher rate of workplace accidents than at comparable plants. In an effort to improve employee safety, the company implemented a drug testing program that involved screening all employees for 12 substances, including some found in legally prescribed drugs. The 12 substances (which are present in such medications as the pain medications Oxycodone and Lorta; in Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety disorders; and in Didrex, a weight loss drug) all carried “adverse warnings” about operating equipment or impaired mental alertness while using the medication. The company believed that each of the 12 substances created a safety risk in the plant's manufacturing environment. Employees who failed the test were placed on 30-day leaves of absence, to allow them time to transition to other drugs the company deemed less risky. Any employee who failed the test again after 30 days was placed on indefinite layoff and automatically terminated six months later.
The seven plaintiffs failed the drug test because they were taking legally prescribed drugs that contained one or more of the 12 banned substances. Each claimed the ability, with the medication, to perform essential job functions in a safe manner. In fact, several plaintiffs had physician letters stating that the medication was necessary for the employee’s health and would not affect the employee's work performance.
The plaintiffs challenged the screening procedure under the ADA, which prohibits covered employers from "using qualification standards, employment tests or other selection criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability or class of individuals with disabilities unless the standard... is shown to be job-related for the position in question and is consistent with business necessity." The court found that the drug testing policy arguably violated this prohibition because it screened out individuals based on "certain chemicals in their system that are designed to treat serious physical and mental problems." It found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the company's drug testing policy was not "job-related and consistent with business necessity" because it was "broader [and] more intrusive than necessary" since it "excludes all employees who take certain medications from working in any capacity" at the company "without any regard for individual circumstances."
The court went on to suggest that the company's policy might have been compliant with the ADA had it been more flexible, with the plaintiffs given the chance to show that their prescription drug use did not interfere with workplace safety. This result illustrates the importance of keeping in mind the ADA’s “individualized assessment” requirement when considering the adoption of blanket health or medical requirements in the interest of workplace safety.