Disabilities in the medical laboratory workplace

By Lt Col Paul R. Eden, MT(ASCP), PhD, USAF (ret.) L

aboratory supervisors and their staff members are asked to wear many hats. Working in the blood bank, for example, may have you performing type and crossmatches one day, training new technicians on blood issue policies the next, and preparing your department to implement new lab equipment on the floor the day after that—and in many situations this is all in the same day.

Staff members with disabilities

One of the less common (but just as important) challenges faced by laboratory supervisors is staff members with dis- abilities. Disabilities present themselves in many forms including mental and physical. Disabilities can make certain aspects of the job challenging not only for the employee, but for a supervisor to position the employee to succeed. Federal law, as well as laboratory accreditation standards, address some of these issues. An advantage we have as laboratory professionals is that in many situations a simple adjustment to the employee’s role can help staff with disabilities perform well, while continuing to meet both law and laboratory guidelines and requirements.

The law

The United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 19901

the workplace with oversight given to the Equal Employ- ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The act states that a disabled person is identified as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”2

to address discrimination in

Paul Eden and his two-year-old service dog, Charlotte; a Great Dane from the Service Dog Project. Image courtesy of Paul Eden.

assignments, promotions, layoffs, and training is forbid- den under the law.3

to laboratory accreditation checklist items. Ergonomic plan

This may include difficulty walking, standing for long periods of time, difficulty in reading laboratory documentation due to dyslexia, or, for example, difficulty drawing blood due to excessive hand shaking. In addition, the law does not allow an employer to treat an applicant or employee less favorably than a healthy employee due to disability. The law goes on to state that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to an oth- erwise qualified person.1

Reasonable accommodations

include possible wheelchair access or modifications to normal practice(s) in the workplace. However, the term “reasonable accommodations” can be subjective. As a supervisor you may ask how far of an accommo- dation is required to meet the letter of the law. First, an employer is not required to make accommodations that result in undue hardship(s). For example, a technician broke their ankle at home and is unable to climb stairs as a result. As a supervisor, you are not required to move the laboratory instrumentation to the first floor to accommo- date the staff member. However, you can direct him/her to the building elevators to accommodate their limited mobility and/or adjust their work assignments to enable the person to work at a desk instead of standing during recovery. The disabled employee should be able to per- form the essential tasks of their position. Discrimination based on a disability regarding hiring, firing, pay, work


The College of American Pathologists (CAP) general check- list contains both Phase I and II items that are relevant to disabled employees. Environmental Safety (GEN.77200) addresses ergonomic situations in the laboratory in regard to disabilities. This checklist generally covers work-related hazards in the laboratory via the facility’s ergonomic plan. The plan should include steps to address disabled per- sonnel. For obvious reasons, a plan can’t be written that covers all possible disabilities, however, addressing and accommodating staff disabilities is important. Another common scenario is a disabled staff member experiencing low back and/or knee pain. Typically, imple- mentation of the laboratory ergonomic plan addresses this issue. For example, if a staff member cannot stand on their feet all day, a chair can be provided, or the member can be assigned tasks that enable sitting, such as quality control review, or workload management.

Color blindness Working in a medical laboratory presents dozens of tasks that require the ability to not only distinguish color but differentiate between colors. Some examples include reading hematology slides, processing microbiology cul- ture samples, and/or measuring color changes in point- of-care tests. As such, color discrimination (GEN.55400) is a standard checklist item that addresses visual color discrimination (color blindness) in laboratory employees. The ADA states an employer cannot discriminate against an applicant or employee due to color blindness. Also,

This accommodation is also applicable

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