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Home No. 22: How Should I Deal with a New Lab Tech Who Refuses to Handle Certain Animals for Religious Reasons?

Sep 06

No. 22: How Should I Deal with a New Lab Tech Who Refuses to Handle Certain Animals for Religious Reasons?

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How Should I Deal with a New Lab Tech Who Refuses to Handle Certain Animals for Religious Reasons?

Reader Question: We're studying skin healing in pigs. However, a new lab tech says that touching pigs is against her religion. What's the best way for me to handle this situation?

Expert comments: This appears initially to be a personnel matter. Working with your human-resources department, you might come up with an arrangement where you reassign this tech to other duties or swap her duties with other lab techs. (Sometimes there are other reasons to do this besides religious beliefs.) That could fully resolve your problem.

However, if she is the only lab tech who can do the required work, then your Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) would become involved. That's because it would become an animal-welfare question at that point, and the IACUC would need to make sure the animals are properly cared for.

You should always bring any questions of animal care or welfare to the attention of the IACUC.

The issue would be fully investigated by one or more IACUC members, assigned by the chair. And, if necessary, the university veterinarian or staff of veterinarians would step in to ensure the animals receive adequate care.

In the extreme, the protocol could be stopped, depending on circumstances.

What would happen to the funding in that case? That would depend on the source of the funding. If it's Public Health Service (PHS) funds, for example, no further animal-research costs could be expended from the grant account. IACUC would coordinate with the Sponsored Programs Office to ensure no animal care costs are charged to the account beyond the date of suspension.

Expert comments: Bill Moseley, Research Integrity & Compliance Review Officer and Senior Coordinator of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), Colorado State University

Comments (10)
Associate Professor
written by Jane Siegfried, September 02, 2010
I dont think it is ever wise to force someone to do something that conflicts with their beliefs. However you also have a lab to run. If that person cant be re-assigned duties then perhaps they need to work in a different lab. Just depends on how much you need their experience.

Example- a nurse who is pro life shouldn't be forced to work with patients needing an elective abortion. But if that is all you do then they need to work elsewhere.
Assistant Professor
written by Theodore Traife, September 03, 2010
The question is worded in terms of "handling" animals, not in terms of carrying out procedures on them, such as an abortion. I'm not exactly sure which religions prohibit the handling of certain animals, but if there are some valid examples then, perhaps, the lab tech can be asked to wear rubber gloves and other protective garments that will minimize the actual contact between them and the animals they need to handle.
Accommodation of religous beliefs
written by ms, September 07, 2010
The institution should provide reasonable accommodation for sincerely-held religious beliefs:


There should be an interactive conversation with the employee as to whether there is a way in which this employee's request for accommodation can be met without posing an undue burden to your institution.
written by David, September 09, 2010
What if your funding is specific to swine and only budgets a single lab tech?
written by Clergy Viewpoint Needed , September 09, 2010
Two religions come quickly to mind insofar as forbidding the EATING of pigs/pork--Islam and Judaism. I am not aware of doctrine that forbids "touching" a pig, but perhaps such dogma exists in certain sects. That is why I am shocked at the purely bureaucratic comments thus far,all focusing on legalistic, funding and HR angles. Even atheistic scientists should realize that one ingredient to a resolution should be consultation with a learned clergyperson of the faith involved. It would show the tech you are at least concerned, and maybe she will learn that her religious interpretations are incorrect misunderstandings. Problem disappears.
written by nk, September 09, 2010
One question - it's mentioned that this was a new lab tech. Was this part of her initial job description?

The reason I ask is for my first lab tech position, the job description specifically stated "no animal" work (there was a section that listed animals, radiation, blood, etc and each was checked either yes or no). I was asked about working with animals during the interview, which surprised me since the descirption said none, I did say that I was ok with dissection afterwards, but live animals (especially rodents) scared me. I was assured that no live animal work (including the sacrifice part) would be required of me. One month after I started, I found that I was expected to work with live animals.

In an effort to be accomodating, I did attempt some animal training from the vivarium, but they wouldn't approve me and told the PI that I was literally terrified of the animals and the animals would be able to sense that and they could not allow me to handle the animals myself. We managed to work out a system so that someone else would physically touch the animals when needed (which luckily wasn't often) and I'd do the rest.
written by Rosa, September 09, 2010
I write into the job description that animal work will be required. I also ask at the interview. IF there is even a slight hesitation I will not hire that person.
written by wkr, September 09, 2010
Since this is a new person, I think that it was your responsibility to clearly spell out 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of the job. If the main research is dealing with pig and pig products, then hiring someone that feels this is against their religion was clearly your mistake. Since they should be on probation, it would be wise to resolve this issue ASAP. Remember the Sepoy's revolt!
Oh good grief!
written by sp, September 09, 2010
This seems crazy to me. If the job involves handling animals, both the technician and the PI should have been clear about that before the person was hired. If the technician understood that the job required them to handle pigs, accepted the job, and now refuses to do it, he/she should be fired without further ado. If the job description really was altered after the technician was hired, it's the PI's fault and the technician should at least be given some compensation. But really, if a person refuses to do the job their boss needs them to do, **for whatever reason**, then either they should quit, or if they won't quit, they should be fired. It seems to me that people are being unduly squeamish in this case because religion is being used as a reason for refusing. But really it doesn't matter what the reason is - nobody can expect to be paid for not doing a job.
written by Gregory McKenna, September 09, 2010
Just a brief comment. In some EEOC type of courses I have had to attend, religious beliefs fell under the rubric of 'choice' vs 'no-choice'. Hence, one is not discriminating against a religion in a situation like this as religions involve an element of choice...something that is not true of color or gender. One needs to be sensitive and not explicitly discriminate against a religion. At the same time, if the job requires working with, as here, pigs someone who refuses to work with pigs for any reason would be subject to dismissal. But if you only tried to make people work with pigs who stated that they were of a certain religion, you would have a problem.

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