By Frank Harty
In the wake of the Loren Bishop trial in the Polk County District Court, the public is acutely aware of the risks posed by operating machinery while under the influence of pain killers. 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. To comply with the ADA as the EEOC apparently interprets it, an employer may be required to wait until an employee "nods off" at the brake press machine or skewers a coworker with a forklift before inquiring as to whether the employee might be impaired by prescription narcotics. The cost of this apparent overregulation may not be obvious, but 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.