Safety and OSHA News

Is violent worker protected from firing by disability law?


A diabetic employee can’t control his hypoglycemic episodes. In recent episodes, he’s become disoriented around dangerous equipment and threatened violence against co-workers. Can you fire him for safety reasons, or is he protected under disability law?

Martin Onken was a welder for McNeilus Truck & Manufacturing in Iowa. He has Type I diabetes which causes him to have occasional low blood sugar episodes – hypoglycemia.

Onken is among a small percentage of diabetics who are often unable to detect their low blood sugar from physical symptoms.

He suffered several low-blood sugar episodes at work. Co-workers would offer him a soda, candy bar or tube of glucose to bring his blood sugar back up. The company worked with Onken through several episodes and encouraged him to seek medical help to better control his condition, which he did.

However, one hypoglycemic episode in particular proved to be the last straw.

During this episode, some of Onken’s co-workers saw him staggering near his work station.

One co-worker, who was also a paramedic, approached him. Onken lifted his arm into a position that implied he was going to hit his co-worker, laughed and said, “You scared?”

When the plant supervisor approached him, Onken held his left arm back as if he was going to hit the supervisor. Onken lowered his arm, and the supervisor suggested he go to the break room. Onken cursed at the supervisor and said he wasn’t going anywhere.

Then Onken locked himself in a restroom and refused to come out. He came out of the restroom after 25 minutes.

When the co-worker who was a paramedic offered Onken a tube with glucose to bring his blood sugar back up, he knocked it out of her hand. Paramedics took Onken to the hospital.

In his report about the episode, the supervisor wrote that this time he knew those around Onken were at risk.

A doctor evaluated Onken. The doctor wrote Onken “would not be a risk to himself or others if he was able to manage his underlying medical condition without having hypoglycemic episodes. He appears to be unable to appropriately determine when he is becoming hypoglycemic and to take appropriate action.”

Based on the doctor’s report, and the company’s own observance of Onken, they fired him.

Onken sued, claiming discrimination based on his disability.

The court’s ruling: The company had a valid safety reason to fire Onken. The judges wrote that, since Onken presented a direct threat to the safety of others at the plant, he wasn’t a qualified individual with a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For more information on accommodating employees with diabetes, click here.

Cite: Onken v. McNeilus Truck & Manufacturing, Inc., U.S. District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division, No. 08-CV-2003-LRR, 7/10/09.

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  1. Good call. Onken felt entitled and took a chance that an irresponsible judge would side with him. Maybe next time he’ll think more about personal responsibility.

  2. I agree, John. He was having too much fun with the situation to lead anyone to think he was not in control of his faculties.

  3. The dual-edged sword of protection under the ADA is that you’re protected from getting fired provided you adhere to the policies of the company you work for that everyone else has to abide by. You can’t fire someone just because they’re an alcoholic, but you can require that they not drink at work.

    This guy knew he had diabetes, and there are many ways to manage your diabetes. It sounds like this guy is still in denial about the extent of his diabetes. Maybe having the court rule against him will help him wake up and control it on his own.
    d of prtectio

  4. I agree. He was a danger to others as well as to himself. It’s too bad he can’t control it. I’m glad the court upheld the firing, as it sounds like this company tried very hard to work with him before finally deciding to let him go based on his uncontrollable behavior.

  5. I beleive the termination was proper, but if John and Marlin think the man was having fun or faking they need to be better education on the wide ranging behavior of diabetics.

    These cases never give details, but i would guess the “judge” heard enough about the man’s failure to maintain whatever life style requirements he should have done to control his diabetes.

    I have seen several individuals with similar behaviors that was related to diabetes. They don’t know what they are doing, but are still dangerous.

    Safety professionals, security and HR professionals need to understand these and other diseases behavioral side effects.

  6. I agree with the Judge’s ruling also.
    There is nothing in this make me think that he was having “too much fun” or “felt entitled”
    The man is unfortunate enough to have a condition that according to the article he had sought treatment to control.
    It is understandable that he would try to keep his job, clear though he is not fit to keep it.

  7. This man was a danger to himself and his co-workers. While he may suffer from diabetes, he has a responsibility to get it under control. He his not the only person in the world that suffers from diabetes. This something that can be controlled. To use this as an “excuse” for his behavior, is irresponsible and reckless. This man obviously did not want to follow the doctor’s instructions on living diabetes.

    Thank goodness that he went before a Judge that would not buy into his irresponsibility and recklessness.

    Because we have become such a litigious society, that this type of behavior glogs up our court system. This type of case and behavior leaves the “door wide open” for others who will try to follow his example. Hopefully before they go too far, they will see that he “go nowhere fast”!!!

  8. It’s about time the originally intended spirit of the ADA, not the trial lawyer version was upheld. No company should have to sacrifice other employees well being to keep a dangerous, if disabled employee around. I’d be surprised if many people at all disagree with this one.

  9. I once worked for a man who warned us that he had Type 1 Diabetes. He told us that if he appeared to be drunk or on drugs we should call 911 and explain his condition. I thought that was great advise. Thankfully we never had to use it.

  10. Great article! I would like to know what others may have experienced regarding agressive or threatening behaviorial problems that are attributable to diabetic conditions.

  11. It happens alot. Often, even police arrest suspected DUI’s only to find out they are having diabetic-related episodes. Fortunately, like Jim says above, in the workplace most of the responsible diabetics will make their co-workers know the situation before it occurs. As a first aid instructor, I have run into a few of these cases in the workplace.

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