COPD and Workplace Accommodations
Living and working with a chronic respiratory condition like COPD can be a real challenge. Luckily, the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA for short) offers legal protections for individuals living with qualifying disabilities. In many cases, COPD can be considered a legal disability if there is an impairment that is “substantially limiting.” This means that the impairment “prevents an individual from performing a major life activity or when it significantly restricts the condition, manner, or duration under which an individual can perform a major life activity.”
In plain English: if breathlessness or other symptoms from COPD are limiting you from doing what is expected of you in the work place, the ADA may offer you some legal protections. Under the ADA, most employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with qualifying disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are modifications to a job, employment practice or process, or work environment that allow you to complete your work both productively and comfortably. (For general tips about requesting workplace accommodations, see Workplace Accommodations Under the Americans With Disabilities Act).
Which specific tasks are the most problematic?
The ADA places the initial burden on the employee to inform his or her employer about the need for these accommodations, so you’ll want to be as prepared as possible before speaking with your boss or supervisor. First, you’ll want to consider exactly how your COPD makes it more difficult for you to do your job. Which specific tasks are the most problematic? Do you have difficulty walking from the parking lot to the work site? Does your job require an excessive amount of movement around the office? Does nearby construction make it difficult for you to breath? Is it difficult for you to work for extended periods of time? It’s important to remember that not everyone with COPD will experience the same limitations – and the degree of each limitation will also vary. Be sure to take the time to pinpoint the limitations you personally experience.
Facility, work station, and work day
Once you pinpoint the specific issues most problematic for you, its time to start brainstorming suggestions for improvements. What types of accommodations would best be able to reduce or eliminate your issues? Here are some general suggestions that may be useful for individuals living with COPD to request:
- Accessible facility – including restrooms and break room
- Nearby or reserved parking
- Accessible entrance or automatic doors
- Reduce workplace pollutants by using non-toxic solvents, primers, stains, and alternative pest management practices
- Maintain the facility’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system
- Install air purification systems throughout the entire building
- Maintain a clean and healthy workstation
- If not available throughout the entire facility, provide air purification at individual work stations
- Condition, heat, dehumidify, or add moisture to the air as appropriate
- Create a smoke and fragrance-free work environment
- Modify the workstation to accommodate a wheelchair, scooter, or the use of oxygen therapy equipment
- Provide an adjustable work station that allows for sitting or standing
- Provide personal protective equipment, including masks, to employees who work in at-risk areas
- Reduce physical exertion required and/or provide mobility aids
- Allow a modified schedule, such as a later start time or shortening the work day while extending the work week
- Consider an alternative work arrangement such as job sharing or work-from-home
- Provide notification of construction and cleaning in the workplace and allow for alternative arrangements during these times
- Implement a flexible leave policy or provide additional unpaid leave allowance
Make sure you identify which issues – and which solutions – you think are most important for you personally before making an appointment to speak with your employer. For help brainstorming about your specific health/job situation, contact the Job Accommodation Network – a free, confidential, and personalized service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.
How has your experience been navigating the healthcare system as someone with COPD?