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About Electrical Sensitivity
There are people who report a sensitivity to electromagnetic fields. Although it has been difficult for the environmental health and medical communities to define, individuals with electromagnetic sensitivity report various symptoms including but not limited to fatigue, weakness, neurological issues, immunological issues, gastrointestinal issues, increased irritability, lack of ability to think clearly and quickly, sleep disturbance, overall malaise, and anxiety. Despite the medical community's difficulty in defining electromagnetic sensitivity, individuals with the condition may benefit from job accommodations.
Electrical Sensitivity and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Accommodating Employees with Electrical Sensitivity
People with electrical/electromagnetic sensitivity may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with electrical/electromagnetic sensitivity will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.
Questions to Consider:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
- Allow communication via typewriter or handwritten notes rather than via computer or work with the employee to determine what modifications would allow them to use a computer safely and effectively.
- Provide headset/handset extenders or alternate headsets to lengthen the distance between devices that trigger symptoms and the employee's body
- Change the employee's shift to allow for less exposure to others' devices
- Relocate workplace away from areas where symptoms are triggered. This may include limiting certain types of devices in the vicinity of the employee's workstation
- Allow telework
- Allow the employee to meet with others in areas where triggers are minimized or allow remote access to meetings or activities that must take place in areas that trigger symptoms.
- Provide wired telephones and network connections
- Provide building-wide and/or workspace shielding of equipment and devices, for example add filters to fluorescent lights and tape electrical cords
Situations and Solutions:
The following situations and solutions are real-life examples of accommodations that were made by JAN customers. Because accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, these examples may not be effective for every workplace but give you an idea about the types of accommodations that are possible.
A company policy allowing anyone to work from home changed following a merger.
The new company allowed an employee with electrical sensitivity to continue working from home as an accommodation, modifying the new policy and adjusting the way meetings were conducted.
A new hire with electrical sensitivity requested alternative means of communication because the wireless phones triggered symptoms.
The employer provided a wired telephone as an alternative in addition to increasing face-to-face communication.
After moving to a new facility an employee with electrical sensitivity noticed that exposure to devices in the “open concept” office was triggering symptoms.
The employer moved the employees’ workspace and allowed the use of a cubicle wall and shielding equipment as an accommodation.
An employee with electrical sensitivity was experiencing increased symptoms during staff meetings.
As an accommodation the employer introduced a policy restricting the use of devices that triggered symptoms during meetings.
An employee with electrical sensitivity was provided with a Plexiglas shield for their computer and phone as an accommodation.
They were also permitted to use a typewriter or handwritten notes in place of the computer for internal communication purposes.