Claustrophobic staff can be told to work in confined spaces: FWC

By Portner Press on July 11th, 2019
  1. Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination
  2. Discrimination in the workplace

A worker who developed severe claustrophobia after becoming trapped in an elevator can be required to continue working in confined spaces, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) has ruled.

In 2002, a trade assistant for KONE Elevators Pty Ltd became trapped in an elevator lift car when the power ceased. There was no possible emergency exit.

The worker said that he developed severe claustrophobia over several years and in 2006, the employer transferred him from the elevator repair team to the escalator repair team.

However, last year, KONE decided to re-allocate the worker to the elevator team. The worker opposed this and was stood down by the employer until he submitted medical evidence of his claustrophobia.

The worker later provided a letter from his doctor stating:

“[The worker] is completely able to perform standard critical functional job demands such as:-

Frequent work in confined spaces —- as long as those confined spaces relate to escalators and travelators

It is my belief that [the worker] can perform all work and duties associated with escalators and travelators and this includes working in confined spaces that relate to escalators and travelators only.

It is my belief that [the worker] can perform all work and duties associated with lifts, except any work that involves being in confined and enclosed lift environments, that could be detrimental to his health and any of his co-workers who happened to be with him at the time.”

KONE then gave him a return to work (RTW) plan.

The worker rejected this, as it described his medical condition as ‘non-work related’ and stated that his return to work was on ‘restricted duties’, which he believed was inappropriate as he had been performing escalator work, not elevator work, for about 13 years.

He applied to the FWC to deal with the dispute.

In the hearing, Commissioner Jennifer Hunt found that performing elevator work was an inherent requirement of the worker’s job, but that the employer “with some modification of its crews” could “reasonably accommodate” his condition.

“In determining this dispute, I agree that KONE can state that [the worker] is required to perform all of the work it reasonably requires of him, but in consideration of his very lengthy service, and 13 years without servicing elevators, it is open to KONE to, at least at six-monthly intervals, determine whether it might be able to reasonably accommodate [the worker’s] condition whilst affording him restricted duties,” she said.

“It would, in my view, form part of the Commission’s consideration in an unfair dismissal application if [the worker] was dismissed.”

How would you approach a similar issue in your workplace?

If a worker can no longer perform the inherent requirements of their job due to a medical condition, you must act very carefully.

Any wrong move could leave you liable to a discrimination claim.

You can learn how to avoid this by reading chapter D5 Discrimination in the Health & Safety Handbook.

Find out more.

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