What HR Professionals Should Know About the ADA and Office Ergonomics

From hiring practices to compensation and benefits, there are countless state and federal laws with which human resources professionals must ensure that their organizations are complying. One of the most important federal HR laws is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted in 1990 with the goal of protecting the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace. When employees request new office equipment or other modifications to their workstations due to poor ergonomics, the ADA may be implicated. If so, it is crucial for HR professionals to abide by the ADA’s process for making a reasonable accommodation—but simply purchasing an “ergonomic chair” or following a physician’s recommendation for new office equipment may not be the best or most cost-effective solution to improving ergonomics. 

At Performance Ergonomics, our Certified Professional Ergonomists routinely work with employers and HR managers in a wide variety of industries to ensure that office ergonomic improvements are ADA-compliant and designed to address disability-related limitations while improving employee comfort and productivity. Here’s what HR professionals need to know about the ADA and office ergonomics:

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? 

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas of life, including work, school, and transportation. This sweeping federal law requires organizations with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations that would allow employees with disabilities—defined as “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities”—to perform their essential job functions. 

“Reasonable accommodations” may encompass a broad range of modifications to the hiring process, job duties, or work environment, depending on the individual’s unique needs. An accommodation is considered reasonable if it does not cause undue hardship for the employer.

It is common for HR professionals to receive requests from employees for “ergonomic chairs,” sit-stand desks, and other items that employees believe would improve their work performance. In these situations, if the employee’s disability is not obvious, employers may ask for a limited amount of medical documentation before making an accommodation. However, indiscriminately purchasing a “one-size-fits-all” product regardless of medical condition may fall short of the intended benefit. For example, considering ergonomics and the individual fit will boost productivity, reduce absenteeism, and lower the risk of re-injury, thereby reducing workers’ compensation and other injury-related costs. 

How should HR professionals handle employee requests for ergonomic equipment?

When employees request new office equipment or other modifications due to a disability under the ADA, it can be difficult for HR professionals to determine which solution will actually improve the situation. Often, they simply refer the employee to their physician, who writes a note for a chair, sit-stand desk or other similar equipment. However, without knowing the details of the work environment, these recommendations are not always ideal for the employee’s needs. In addition, many chairs that are labeled as “ergonomic” have poor designs and limited adjustments, so simply purchasing a so-called “ergonomic” chair may not improve the employee’s comfort.

Finding an optimum, tailored solution requires a thorough understanding of ergonomics in the workplace and how it affects the employee in question. According to the ADA, an accommodation is considered “reasonable” as long as it is effective, and the employer has ultimate discretion in deciding among different effective accommodations. When seeking to help individuals with disabilities perform their jobs safely and comfortably—or when improving comfort and minimizing injury risk for other employees—HR professionals should consider the following steps:

    • Conduct an ergonomics assessment. An ergonomics assessment will examine factors such as each employee’s job duties, levels of discomfort, and their workstation equipment and layout in order to gauge current risk factors and identify areas for improvement.
    • Modify the layout of the workstation. In some cases, taking simple steps like installing an adjustable monitor arm to allow ideal positioning of the monitor may resolve the problem.
    • Provide ergonomics training. Teaching employees principles to achieve proper posture, appropriate work techniques, and how to adjust elements in their workstations will help reduce stressors and empower employees to perform their job duties more comfortably. 
    • Restructure work days. For example, allow employees to take more frequent short breaks or have them alternate between different types of tasks in order to minimize strain or repetitive motions.
    • If providing new equipment or furniture is required, consider working with an ergonomics professional to think about different options beyond simply purchasing a highly marketed sit-stand desk or an “ergonomic” chair. For instance, a desktop unit or standard chair may be not be effective in improving employee comfort due to a poor fit with key measurements.

At Performance Ergonomics, we will work with your organization to find ADA-compliant accommodations for employees with disabilities and propose ergonomic solutions that will help the entire workforce perform their jobs more comfortably, safely, and effectively. Our services include comprehensive ergonomics risk assessments, ergonomics training, office workstation evaluations, and more. In addition, Performance Ergonomics is a boutique office furniture dealer and can simplify the process of procuring and installing high-quality products tailored to your employees’ needs. Contact us today to schedule a consultation! 

(Sources: https://askjan.org/publications/consultants-corner/vol12iss05.cfm, https://adata.org/learn-about-ada). 

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