Is a Worker Injured on the Job Protected by the ADA?

Whether an injured worker is protected by the ADA will depend on whether or not the person meets the ADA definitions of an "individual with a disability" and "qualified individual with a disability." (See complete manual, Chapter II.)

The person must have an impairment that "substantially limits a major life activity," have a "record of" or be "regarded as" having such an impairment.

S/he also must be able to perform the essential functions of a job currently held or desired, with or without an accommodation.

Clearly, not every employee injured on the job will meet the ADA definition.

Work-related injuries do not always cause physical or mental impairments severe enough to "substantially limit" a major life activity.

Also, many on-the-job injuries cause non-chronic impairments which heal within a short period of time with little or no long-term or permanent impact.

Such injuries, in most circumstances, are not considered disabilities under the ADA.

The fact that an employee is awarded workers' compensation benefits, or is assigned a high workers' compensation disability rating, does not automatically establish that this person is protected by the ADA.

In most cases, the definition of disability under state workers' compensation laws differs from that under the ADA, because the state laws serve a different purpose.

Workers' compensation laws are designed to provide needed assistance to workers who suffer many kinds of injuries, whereas the ADA's purpose is to protect people from discrimination on the basis of disability.

Thus, many injured workers who qualify for benefits under workers' compensation or other disability benefits laws may not be protected by ADA.

An employer must consider work-related injuries on a case-by-case basis to know if a workers is protected by the ADA.

Many job injuries are not "disabling" under the ADA, but it also is possible that an impairment which is not "substantially limiting" in one circumstance could result in, or lead to, disability in other circumstances.

For Example:
Suppose a mechanic slips and breaks a leg and the leg heals normally within a few months.

Although this worker may be awarded workers' compensation benefits for the injury, he would not be considered a person with a disability under the ADA.

The impairment suffered from the injury did not "substantially limit" a major life activity, since the injury healed within a short period and had little or no long-term impact.

However, if the worker's leg took significantly longer to heal than the usual healing period for this type of injury, and during this period the worker could not walk, s/he would be considered to have a disability.

Or, if the injury caused a permanent limp, the worker might be considered disabled under the ADA if the limp substantially limited his walking, as compared to the average person in the general population.

An employee who was seriously injured while working for a former employer, and was unable to work for a year because of the injury, would have a "record of" a substantially limiting impairment.

If an employer refused to hire or promote this person on the basis of that record, even if s/he had recovered in whole or in part from the injury, this would be a violation of the ADA.

If an impairment or condition caused by an on-the-job injury does not substantially limit an employee's ability to work, but the employer regards the individual as having an impairment that makes him/her unable to perform a class of jobs, such as "heavy labor," this individual would be "regarded" by the employer as having a disability.

An employer who refused to hire or discharged an individual because of this perception would violate the ADA.

Of course, in each of the examples above, the employer would only be liable for discrimination if the individual was qualified for the position held or desired, with or without an accommodation.

EEOC Enforcement Guidance:
Workers' Compensation and the ADA: Click Here