Ask the Expert: Religious Accommodation and Employee Safety

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Question: We have an employee who works outdoors under varying weather conditions, including extreme heat. He is a devout Muslim and is currently observing Ramadan (going without food or fluids all day while working). We are concerned about his health. What can we do to keep him safe while accommodating his religious beliefs?

Answer: Religious accommodation issues can be sensitive, and employers must accommodate employees to the extent possible without undue hardship during Ramadan under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion.
Here are a few suggestions to mitigate your business risk and show your care to your employee:

  1. Think about how you might accommodate his religious beliefs or practices by allowing flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignment and lateral transfer, or modification of workplace practices, policies, and/or procedures so he could work inside for all or part of the day in the air conditioning. 
  2. Have a discussion with him about your safety concerns—extreme heat, lack of fluids, etc. Let him know that you want to accommodate his religious beliefs, but you also care about him as a person and employee and do not want him to suffer any ill effects from the weather and lack of fluids. Ask him if he has any ideas to keep himself safe and healthy during this time. He may come up with a suggestion you haven’t thought of that will work for both of you. 
  3. During Ramadan, one accommodation you could consider is changing the work hours to earlier in the day. With an earlier shift, the employee can come to work before sunrise and after his pre-fasting breakfast meal. He can leave in the early afternoon, before the hottest part of the day. This schedule may help prevent exhaustion that could arise from lack of food and fluid.

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Steve Donovan

Written by Steve Donovan