In physical, labor-intensive jobs, companies are often concerned about both the ability of employees to be able to do the work and the potential liability for workplace injuries.
That liability could come from lawsuits, fines from regulators like OSHA, or workers’ compensation payments. Such companies often look for certain minimum physical fitness requirements from employees—the ability to lift a certain amount of weight or stand for a certain period of time, for example.
But employers need to be careful when setting requirements and in how they evaluate candidates based on those requirements.
Screening to Disqualify
Amsted Rail Co., a manufacturer of steel casings for the rail industry, recently found that out the hard way. The company agreed to pay a $4.4 million settlement to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to resolve a lawsuit.
The lawsuit revolved around the company bringing in a third-party contractor to put candidates through a nerve conduction test as a screening for carpal tunnel syndrome and the company disqualifying some applicants based on the results of those tests.
The company’s business likely makes carpal tunnel a significant risk—based on a lot of repetitive movements with the hands, fingers, and wrists—so it likely had a good reason to not want to hire employees prone to this condition.
Understanding ADA Impacts
However, some experts point out that federal law generally allows employers to set physical qualifications for a job as long as they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires each employee to receive an individualized assessment to determine whether he or she can perform the essential functions of a job and/or whether a reasonable accommodation exists for that employee.
The problem in Amsted’s case is that it focused on candidates’ physical condition rather than on their ability to do the job, and it didn’t take potential accommodations into consideration. The result was a multimillion-dollar dent in the company’s checkbook.