T1D in the workplace

When people don’t understand type 1 diabetes (T1D), they may make assumptions or resort to stereotypes. This can include your employer, or your co-workers, so it’s important to know and understand your rights as an employee with T1D.

Your protections

Understand that all provinces require employers to treat their employees fairly and equally to their co-workers.

Unless your T1D could have safety implications for your colleagues or the general public your medical information is confidential from your employer and coworkers.

There are certain roles in Canada where someone who has insulin-dependent diabetes is typically not permitted to perform. These include:

  • certain jobs within the Canadian Armed Forces;
  • commercial driving into the United States; and
  • certain jobs taking place on a ship sailing into international waters.

Examples of occupations where your T1D would need to be disclosed include:

  • Firefighters
  • Law enforcement officers
  • Commercial pilots and cabin crew
  • Train engineers and conductors
  • Heavy machinery operators
  • Professional and/or commercial drivers

The above jobs require regular medical fitness assessments due to the safety risk they pose to the public.

If you are not working in one of the above listed positions, unless health-related questions are directly related to a specific job requirement, you do not need to disclose your private health information, (like your T1D) during the application or interview process, or upon hiring . It’s your decision whether to disclose your T1D. This disclosure is private and it’s up to you who you share with, and how much information.

If you do choose not to officially disclose your condition to your employer or coworkers, telling a trusted colleague is a good idea so there is someone at work that can respond should you have an emergency or require medical attention.

Many people with T1D choose to share once they start the job, but some may want to open up during the initial hiring process.

Disclosing your type 1 diabetes during a job interview can have both drawbacks and merits. While people with diabetes successfully perform all types of jobs, some employers may be reluctant to employ someone with diabetes in particular positions because of misconceptions about the disease.

For example, they may wrongly assume that people with T1D can’t hold a position that requires regular driving. If you choose to tell your potential employer about your diabetes, you need to be prepared to help dispel these myths.

It is discriminatory to deny employment because of T1D. However, applicants and employees with T1D may be required to demonstrate that their condition is well-managed, and their risk of hypoglycemia is low.

If you are already working, your employer does not need to be informed about a new diagnosis of T1D unless you wish to disclose, or you now require appropriate accommodation.

Federal human rights legislation specifies that an employer must accommodate a person with diabetes up to the point of “undue hardship”. This means that an employer must do what is necessary in the workplace to enable a person with diabetes to perform the essential duties of a job unless the employer would suffer undue hardship in terms of health, safety and cost.

For example, if an employee with T1D requires regularly scheduled breaks during the day to have a snack or to administer insulin, the employer would be legally obligated at almost all workplaces to grant the request.

Other requests for accommodation might include:

  • A private place to test blood glucose levels or administer insulin, if you are using a glucose monitoring device or pen/multiple daily injections
  • A place to rest until blood glucose levels normalize after treating a low
  • A secure location to store snacks and other diabetes supplies
  • The ability to take time off to attend medical appointments

Whatever you may need to best manage your T1D should be discussed with your immediate supervisor, and this should be considered reasonable accommodation.  If your request for reasonable accommodation is denied or turned down, your next step could be to file a human rights complaint against your employer.

Employer discrimination can occur in many forms. Each province has harassment protection to protect you, but that doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t happen. An employer might refuse to hire you, limit your job responsibilities or promotions, or even fire you.

They might also be unwilling to accommodate your need for scheduled meals or snack breaks, or to provide a private location where you can check your blood glucose or inject your insulin. Plus, there are more covert signs of discrimination from coworkers and managers alike.

Discrimination in the workplace often occurs because employers and co-workers don’t understand type 1 diabetes and how it is managed. Your coworkers may think you are asking for special treatment. Your employer may be concerned about loss of work time and productivity, and this may influence his or her willingness to hire or support you within the workplace. Use your judgment to decide if talking to them about your condition will help the situation.

If discrimination persists, remember your employer is required to take reasonable steps to accommodate your needs. It is the law. For instance, if you need to take a short break to have a snack or check your blood glucose, your employer would be legally obliged, in most cases, to allow it.

Other forms of discrimination can include limiting your job responsibilities, exclusion based on your T1D, or refusing to hire at all because of a T1D disclosure.

An employer cannot establish or enact policies that deny employment opportunities on a prohibited ground of discrimination such as T1D, unless the employer can establish that the policy is a true occupational requirement that is therefore impossible to accommodate.

However, many refusals to accommodate are simply the result of a lack of education or knowledge about T1D, particularly when it comes to administering insulin or checking blood glucose.

Ideally, any challenges you have regarding your T1D at work can be addressed by educating your employer about T1D and your specific needs, and why they are important. If attempting to educate your supervisor or workplace doesn’t work, you may need to involve your diabetes care team, union (if you are in a unionized workplace) or even your elected official.

If a unionized employee faces discrimination at work because of T1D, they may be able to initiate a grievance under that workplace’s Collective Agreement. The next step would be taking your grievance to the union representative. In almost all cases, the union has a duty to pursue the grievance on behalf of the employee and will cover the costs.

If all the above fails, you may need to escalate to a lawsuit or file a Human Rights complaint.

Both the federal and provincial legislatures in Canada have human rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of physical disability. As defined by this human rights law, type 1 diabetes is a disability for which discrimination is prohibited.

The Canadian Human Rights Act

If you are employed by a federal workplace, any discriminatory action or event falls under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Subsection 3 (1), paragraph 7 (a) and section 14 of the Canadian Human Rights Act stipulates the following:

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted are prohibited grounds of discrimination.

  1. It is discriminatory practice, directly or indirectly

(a) to refuse to employ or continue to employ an individual on a prohibited ground of discrimination.

People who are not employed in federal work are governed by the laws of the province or territory where they work. Provincial and territorial human rights codes prohibit discrimination on the ground of disability, which includes type 1 diabetes.

You should discuss with a certified employment lawyer in your province or territory who would be up-to-date on the most current legislation and your rights therein.

If you feel that you have been discriminated against because of diabetes, you should discuss your complaint and the process with a human rights officer with either the Canadian Human Rights Commission (for federal issues) or your provincial/territorial human rights commission (for provincial/territorial issues).

Please note that there are deadlines for filing a human rights complaint. You should file as soon as possible at the time of the discriminatory action or event to ensure it is heard and isn’t dismissed for being filed too late.

Despite all the advances in managing diabetes, there are some jobs that may no longer suit you or you may need reasonable accommodation.

If you develop neuropathy or foot infections, for instance, working construction and wearing steel-toed boots on a cold concrete floor for 12 hours a day may not be for you.

Similarly, if you have retinopathy or a heart condition, you should not be performing tasks such as heavy lifting.

Speak with your doctor or diabetes educator if you have concerns about the possible health risks associated with the demands of your job.