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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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