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Janitor sensitive to cleaning chemicals not covered by ADA



By Doug Hanson

Sensitive Sally

The janitor’s job duties entailed cleaning restrooms, counters and windows, for which she was required to mix water, detergent and acids to prepare cleaning solutions.  She worked several cleaning routes during her employment.

Over a year after she began her employment, the janitor was assigned to perform cleaning services for a large office building.  This required her to clean eight restrooms, a lobby, a large cafeteria, a small cafeteria, several conference rooms, cubicles, hallways and stairs.  After several months, the janitor developed sensitivity to the cleaning products used for the office assignment, and she complained of burning lungs and throat.  After an examination, her physician diagnosed her with mild pneumonitis and mild hypoxia.  The physician recommended the janitor take a week off of work and wear a mask when cleaning the bathrooms.

Upon returning to work after her week of leave, the janitor provided the company with a letter from her physician restricting her bathroom chemical exposure to a maximum of two hours per day and requesting the company make an effort to ventilate the area.  The company complied and assigned four of her bathrooms to another janitor.  The janitor’s symptoms, however, returned within two hours of working.  The janitor’s supervisor drove her to a medical center the same day for treatment.

When the janitor again returned to work, her physician restricted her to “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”  The restrictions wer not limited to the office location, but barred her from use of cleaning chemicals for any purpose.  The company contacted the janitor’s physician to express concern about her condition and explained it had no work available for the janitor within the restrictions.

The company requested the physician review the details of the cleaning solutions and the janitor’s job descriptions and provide updated restrictions.  After reviewing the chemical details, the physician did not change the restrictions and recommended the janitor stay away from the cleaning solutions altogether. The physician never released the janitor’s restrictions.

The company’s president of human resources reviewed the physician’s reports and conclusions and concluded the company could not provide a position within the restrictions imposed by the physician.  The cleaning solutions unavoidably became airborne in the buildings while the janitorial staff was cleaning the buildings, and no other positions were available. After the janitor was advised no work was available within the restrictions, she sued the company under the ADA, alleging failure to reasonably accommodate her disability.

No reasonable accommodations available
The district court concluded the janitor was not protected by the ADA because she could not perform the essential functions of her job even with reasonable accommodations. On appeal, the janitor proposed two accommodations: (1) eliminating restrooms on her cleaning route; or (2)  providing her with a respirator. The Sixth Circuit found neither of the janitor’s proposed accommodations were objectively reasonable because they both failed to comply with the physician-mandated restriction of “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”  Elimination of restrooms on the cleaning route was not reasonable as the janitor would still be exposed to cleaning chemicals in the other areas of her route. Further, there was no evidence a respirator would have allowed the janitor to comply with the physician’s restrictions.  The physician’s final restriction was not limited to breathing fumes from chemical solutions, but was to avoid exposure of all kind.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the janitor’s claims.


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