In an ideal world, when workers had health complaints they’d go straight to an HR person who had extensive training dealing with ADA issues.

Most of us don’t live in that world. Workers almost always complain to supervisors, who are often uncomfortable making decisions about what constitutes a serious complaint and what doesn’t.

So let’s review two things that supervisors absolutely need to know. First, the definition of a disability:

“A disability is defined broadly to include any physical or mental impairment that ‘substantially limits’ an employee from performing a ‘major life activity,’ including the ability to work.”

The second thing supervisors must know: If a complaint fits this definition, the company may have to make an “accommodation.” And if that accommodation isn’t made, the person could sue.

So there’s a lot at stake when a worker complains about a health issue. The supervisor has to know roughly where the line is between an ordinary ailment (which doesn’t require an accommodation) and an actual disability (which does).

Minor, temporary physical conditions like small cuts and bruises, or coughs and colds, are obviously NOT disabilities. Deafness and blindness obviously are. But there’s gray space between those extremes.

What if a worker comes to you and says her hands ache when performing an assembly-line task? It could because she overdid the yardwork over the weekend. But it could also be multiple sclerosis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

What if a worker says her skin broke out when she came into contact with certain chemicals in your plant? Maybe it was a bad reaction to the chocolate she ate last night. But maybe she’s allergic to workplace chemical that “substantially limits” her ability to perform a “major life activity” — namely her job?

Hard calls. But there’s an easy answer for supervisors: Err on the side of caution. If there’s any doubt about whether a disability qualifies, go to HR. That’s what we’re here for.

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