It is not uncommon for an employee to be perceived as being awkward about something in connection with their disability. The case of iForce v Wood is an illustration of this scenario. In that case an employee was a packer, working at a fixed workstation in a factory. She had osteoarthritis which was exacerbated by damp and cold. The employer reorganised how work flowed through its warehouse, requiring the staff to instead of stand at fixed workstations, follow the work around. This employee refused to work at the workstations at the end benches nearest the loading doors in the belief that it would be cold, and damp there, and thus exacerbate her medical condition.
The employer duly investigated whether her claims were correct, and its investigations revealed that there was no material difference in temperature or humidity anywhere in the warehouse. When the employee continued to refuse to work in the way it required, she was disciplined for failure to obey a reasonable instruction and issued with a final written warning, which on appeal got downgraded to a written warning.
The employee complained of disability discrimination under s. 15 of the Equality Act 2010 arguing the employer couldn’t show that its treatment of her was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and that it had treated her unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of her disability.
The Employment Tribunal agreed that the warning had been given because she refused to comply with an instruction and that arose because of her medical condition. It hasn’t arisen because of her disability; it has arisen as a result of her mistaken belief in connection with her disability. Thus, there was not the required connection between her act of misconduct and the disability. Instead the connection was with her mistaken belief. There was no evidence that her mistaken belief was a consequence of her disability, so her section 15 claim failed.
This illustrates that where you have an employee saying they can’t do something because of a health condition, you should be checking (with medical advice if necessary) that that is the case, and exploring like this employer did, whether the employee’s assumptions about temperature and humidity were correct or not. You need to be able to show that actually there is no link with the persons health condition, and the assumptions the employee is making are wrong, and you’ll be safe to proceed.