From the Hotline: Special Accommodation for Employees who Cannot Read or Write

Question: What special accommodation should an employer have for an employee who works in a safety-sensitive position who cannot read or write? The employee is required to pass a hazard communication training, as well as be able to respond adequately to an emergency situation, including being able to read and follow safety instructions.

Answer: Assuming that this not a disability that causes the illiteracy but based upon lack of formal education, an employer is not required to accommodate the employee.  In safety-sensitive positions such as the one you describe, even if a disability were the cause for inability to read or write, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not override safety requirements in the workplace.

We recommend that you do a thorough assessment of the industry standards and regulatory requirements for incumbents in this type of safety-sensitive position to determine if there are alternatives to ensure that the employee could perform safely in the event of an emergency.  While there may be a means to facilitate audio testing and the individual may be able to comprehend the known requirements under the safety regulations, the inability to read necessary Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), learn new safety equipment that were not known until the emergency by following the written directions, affixing proper labels, or preparing written reports may limit effectiveness in this role.  The employee may become a liability in the event of a true emergency situation and the company must consider the health and safety of all workers in that environment or face potential liability.

Possible alternatives might include allocating some of the duties to another employee, implementing a color coding system or transferring this individual to a position that does not require the fundamental skills as an essential function.  We would encourage you to work with your property and casualty broker to assess the workplace risks to determine the best solution.