Safety and OSHA News

Company didn’t hire deaf man because of safety: Was it discrimination?


A deaf man applied to a mining company for a job. It didn’t hire him, and the man filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Who won?

James Edstrom has a severe hearing impairment. Without a hearing aid, he can’t hear anything. He wears one in his left ear which allows him to hear sounds and some words. Edstrom doesn’t wear a hearing aid in his right ear because even with one, he can’t hear anything on that side.

He’d worked for nine years for LTV Steel Mining Co. During his first year at LTV, he was involved in a near-miss. Another employee operating a crane didn’t see Edstrom and almost collided with him. Edstrom was moved from working inside the mill to outside in the mining pit. He didn’t have any other incidents at LTV. He lost his job when the company closed.

LTV had accommodated Edstrom’s hearing limitation by allowing him to communicate through writing and hand signals.

Edstrom applied for five entry-level positions at Hibbing Taconite, another mining company. Three of the positions were in a plant and two were outdoors in a mining pit.

Hibbing scheduled an interview with Edstrom. His wife called the company to request a sign-language interpreter at the interview.

When Hibbing realized Edstrom was hearing impaired, it cancelled the interview.

Edstrom filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Soon after the charge was filed, Edstrom had an interview with Hibbing.

At the interview, Edstrom said it would be unsafe for him to work in the plants. Hibbing didn’t ask how it could accommodate Edstrom’s hearing impairment other than inquiring how LTV had handled it.

The company’s interview team decided he couldn’t be hired.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on Edstrom’s behalf.

Could he do the job safely with accommodations?

The question in Edstrom’s case came down to whether a reasonable accommodation would allow him to communicate at the job and not affect safety.

Hibbing asked the court to throw out the case.

The court refused to throw out the case, saying there was a genuine issue as to whether Edstrom could be reasonably accommodated for the mine pit positions at Hibbing since he had performed similar jobs at LTV. It also said it was better to leave the question to a jury.

At trial, Hibbing claimed that Edstrom admitted if he’d been hired he would have posed a threat to the safety of other workers.

A requirement that a person “not pose a direct threat to the health of safety of other individuals in the work place” is an acceptable legal defense to a charge of disability discrimination.

The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding that Hibbing didn’t discriminate against Edstrom.

Do you have hearing-impaired workers in safety-sensitive jobs? How do you accommodate them? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest safety news and insights delivered to your inbox.


  1. We have a hearing impaired lift truck driver that we acquired. After a few near misses and one incident involving property damage which could of resulted in someone getting seriously injured, we removed him from the lift truck and put him as a packer on the assembly line. The reason behind this was because of the unsafe acts and the inability to know when other lift trucks were in the area. His unsafe record is what made the change in his position, not because of his disability.

  2. So if I have a disability, can I just file a lawsuit every time I don’t get a job that I apply for?

  3. We are a manufacturing facility. We have a deaf person working on our shop floor. He operates an extruder. He does not wear hearing aids as he is completely deaf in both ears. He reads lips. He drives a hi-low. Other than his deafness, he can do everything a hearing person can do. We have never had any safety incidents with this employee because, in my opinion, his other senses have taken over and he is more careful because of his deafness. When it come to training, we do one-on-one training with him and take our time so that he fully understands the training issue. I think Hibbing should have given Mr. Edstrom a chance to prove that he would have been an excellent employee. Their loss!

  4. This is exactly how it should have worked out. Even with accomadations if someone is still putting others at risk they should not be allowed on site. One day a person such as this will die on site and then the family will sue and put the company out of business. If you have issues, move on, and don’t say it’s not fair, because look what you are dealing with already. You have the ability to overcome with hardwork for your problem already. You shouldn’t take it out on others who don’t want to possibly die to give you a fair chance when you are not starting on the same playing field to begin with.

  5. Donna – if giving him a chance to prove himself cost someone their life or serious injury, would it have been worth it??? With worker’s compensation like it is today, I agree with this decision completely.

  6. First off if he hurt someone else while working, that person could possibly have a claim against the company. So in either case the employer goes to court. It is unfortunate this person was deemed not hireable but I can understand. The company needs to make a reasonable accomodation and that is where it lies. Who’s to say that the job would be the same from one company to the next? Obviously from my point of view, the jury was right.

  7. I agree with the decision because of posing a risk to other workers would be the greater hazard. However, it would have been more prudent for the company to keep the first interview appointment and to have dealt with the issue then. They could have discussed whether procedures in place would provide safety for Edstrom without putting others at risk. If they would have explained this to him in an interview, it might have avoided a lawsuit in the first place. Ignoring the problem is never the solution. it should have been confronted.

  8. These comments are exactly why the law was created. These articles never have enough information to know what really happened in court but with the limited information I wonder if the jury did get it right – not so obvious to me. How did the man function successfully for a number of years and yet not be considered able to function in another similar environment? Was there really no safe way for him to work in the pits or was there just wide spread bias on the jury? The company didn’t even go so far as to talk to the man??? Lot’s of questions in my mind.

    If he killed someone? Really? So that couldn’t happen with a hearing person? Must have missed the part where he’s one of their better employees. You have exposures when you put ANYONE to work. I agree that some disabilities would prevent people from doing some jobs but to automatically assume out of ignorance is unfair – and illegal. The mining operations I’ve been around have equipment running that is often so loud you need substantial hearing protection and can’t hear anything anyway. Hand signals and observation is universely used. Seems like it is how you operate and your awareness of the envirnment that keeps workers safe in the loud operations.

    KUDOS to Donna’s company.

    By the way, if you don’t think there is any discrimination going on in our society, try borrowing a wheel chair and spend just a few hours in it around people that don’t know you. Oh, but that would take a little extra effort. I have – it’s a real eye opener. It is widespead, pervasive, and very sad. It is no wonder that many people with disabilities are angry and disillusioned with “normal” people. I think many of us turn a blind eye not wanting to acknowlege that it could happen to us. Don’t think it can? Are you driving today?

  9. The employee had a near miss at LTV and he was not the one operating the equipment. Another employee did not see him and nearly collided with him. In my opinion the operator of the crane is at fault, although it can be assumed that there would not have been a near miss had Edstrom been able to hear; however, these are only assumptions and speculations. We do not know if the crane operator sounded a horn, but there should have also been a warning device that is visual (like a strobing light). In the manufacturing plant where I used to work we had both audible and visual warning apparatus. Edstrom did not have a record of unsafe acts, so he should not have been disqualified simply due to his disability. The story also does not indicate why Edstrom would say, or prove that he did say, that he is a safety risk. I feel that there is not enough information here to make an objective determination. When I was safety director in the manufacturing plant the responsibility was placed on both the operator and the pedestrian in regards to safety; however, the heavier responsibility was that of the operator.

  10. As usual the people agreeing with the decision would be the first ones screaming and calling foul if this was happening to them. When did we become a society of such hateful people, never giving anyone who has struggled any type of break? It’s extremely sad for everyone. This is a totally wrong decision, he already proved he could do the job. The jury was as usual made up of people not intelligent enough to get out of jury duty!!

  11. Irishman33714 says:

    A hearing impaired person is no different than a person that wears glasses it is pure discrimination ,the jury should have voted on discrimination period,it’s a shitty world we live in discrimination is worse now then it was 30 yrs ago…

  12. As usual, not enough information to really know. But I do wish people would not use the term “near miss” — that actually means a hit!

  13. its funny how quickly managers can jump on the “he’s unsafe in the workplace” bandwagon when it comes to hearing impaired. We hired an associate with total hearling loss and all the managers not just the ones who this individual was assigned to found many reasons that this person will be unsafe for themselves and others around them. upto and including they would burn up in a fire because they cant hear the fire alarm.
    All auto start equipment has both audio and visual startup cues (alarm and strobes) to overcome the fire alarm situation, using reasonable accomodation we subscribed to a cell service that received our fire alarm signal and sent emergency text to the associate. Also we provided text phones to the managers so they could contact the associate on the floor in lieu of the paging system. All of the reasonable accomodations were inexpensive. The biggest expense was registered Sign interpreters we hired for “OSHA required compliance training” by being registered they sign off on copies of the training for the assoicates files. regular meeting notes were provided in writting. The associate quickly earned alot of respect for being a hard worker who helped everyone out when he got his work done… hmmm maybe because he spent less time socializing?

  14. There is not enough information on what testimony was given in the trial to really make an informed comment. However, I do agree that if he was able to do the same job at one company then he would be able to do it at any other company. Safety is every employee’s responsibility, Deaf and hearing. From the little information in the article I think the jury completely got this wrong and if I were this guy I would appeal to a higher court.

  15. I work for a mining company and we have a fully deaf employee who works in our fabricating shop and occasionally runs heavy equipment. He reads lips and communicates with hand signs. His coworkers know they have to make an extra effort to communicate with him and I feel he and everyone around him works more cautiously because of his disability. In the 8 years I have been in the safety department, his name has never come across my desk as one involved in an incident or accident.

  16. Elias Brum says:

    Im currently working on a construction site …..A very Busy construction site where the public does not follow the rules for traffic…walk in front of machines they get mad that we slow them down ….Its a very busy Mall………the older guy is 59 im 58…..he is deaf to the point he needs hearing aids ……his union supplied them ….then he needs to maintain them….until he is eligible to get New ones …..i think he said his dogs ate them broke them….he makes 40 dollars an hour diseides to piss it away ….which he has told me …..And i resspond like hey man you need this to work safely …..he always walks in front of cars in a busy parking lot he does not hear them coming and he does not care …he is not new to his hearing loss apparently years …..he does not make himself aware of his surroundings at all…i am always yelling for him to look here watch out …..i will tell him what we are doing today …he will turn his back on me im talking and after 2-3 minutes of explaining 1 or 2 times he will turn to me and say did you say something ……he has takenout fences walls and other structures ……has hurt himself and come close to hurting me …im not his boss ……just for being unaware of his surroundings and not caring at times he is dangerous never mind his hearing loss ……i felt sorry for him at first ……then he would getmad at me for yelling at him …well he does not read lips and he cant hear me until after s**t hits the fan so what do i do……………….let him hurt me or others ….he is being negligent not buying or repairing his hearing aids ……he goes on lifts up high ….hits corners of walls buildings …people are walking by a fenced area and he topples the fencesjust not paying attention…..i even almost quit today because he gives me s**t for his issues ……..when he damages stuff boss’s will come to me with what happened ….why did i not prevent it ….well i would need to install a shock collar on him ……he hears nothing and wont even look at me for instruction……yes im fed up with him …….not because i have not exhausted all my patience ……so if someone is not equipped to do a job he should not be there people all cry …..if he kills your kid then the out cry comes why was he there …..common sence people …………………..

  17. I am a deaf person from Malaysia and I am a Human Resources Manager and my father is CEO in my big company of the construction. I still study in the Doctoral of Business Administration (DBA) in Human Resources Management. I hired 2 deaf Malaysia and I asked my foreigner workers to taught 2 deaf malaysia for training how to make machine and first safety about instruction. Malaysian government and lawful provided deaf and disability Malaysia get a job in anymore but NEVER discrimination. Many deaf Malaysia get a job as accountant, audit and clerk in bank (need to required a Diploma, Bachelor, Master and PhD/DBA), working in the factory and so on! I had lousy U.S company situation and do not have too common sense! P/S: if deaf Malaysia must be lazying to do working for 3 times and then I can fire them get out from my company and other companies too or warning letter for 3 times and then fired them. Thank you!

Speak Your Mind