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On Line Seminar
Physical Ability Testing

by
Charles K. Anderson, PhD, CPE
President, Advanced Ergonomics, Inc.

What is physical ability testing?

Physical ability tests can be used to evaluate the physical ability of an individual in respect to the physical ability required to perform a particular job. For instance, an employer may want to evaluate whether a job candidate has the strength to lift sixty-pound cases from floor level to mid-chest height. A physical ability test could be designed to simulate that task and thereby assess the candidate's ability to perform that lift. The information can lead to better placement decisions which, in turn, can lead to fewer injuries, higher productivity and lower turnover.


How do I know if I need it?

  • Employees quitting because work is too physically demanding

One of the key indications that physical ability testing would be useful is if new-hires, individuals returning to work after injury, or even incumbent employees are quitting at a high rate with the expressed reason being that the work is too hard for them. Sometimes the reasons given are that the pay is too low, there are less strenuous jobs at the same pay elsewhere, or other justifications that hide the reality that the individual felt they did not have the physical ability to continue performing the job safely.

  • Other indicators of high physical demand

More subtle indications of high physical requirements are that workers lose a significant amount of body weight in their first weeks on the job, employees move to other jobs as quickly as possible, or workers sweat profusely even when the ambient temperature is cool. Employees may also informally adopt strategies to deal with high demands, such as giving the most-strenuous parts of the job to the new employees, who may be younger, stronger and more fit. These strategies may concentrate the exposure to high demands on a few individuals, thereby increasing their risk of injury.

  • High rate of sprain/strain injuries

Physical ability testing can also be indicated when workers are experiencing high rates of sprain/strain injuries or other types of musculoskeletal problems such as back pain or shoulder soreness. Often, the root cause of these sorts of injuries is a mismatch between worker ability and job demand. For example, the mismatch may arise directly from having too little strength to perform specific tasks, such as lifting a sixty-pound case, or from having insufficient stamina to work at the expected productivity for the given shift length.


What are the legal issues?

  • Adverse impact

Our experience indicates that physical ability testing in relation to strength or cardiovascular endurance is likely to create a situation where males have a higher pass rate than females, and individuals younger than forty years have a higher pass rate than individuals over forty years old. This is known as adverse impact. When there is adverse impact for females or other groups protected under the Civil Rights Act, employers must assure that they meet the requirements laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

  • Uniform Guidelines On Employee Selection Procedures
The Uniform Guidelines outline the information that is required to demonstrate that a test battery is a valid selection instrument. Basically, there are three points that need to be demonstrated:
  1. there has been a thorough job analysis;
  2. the tests in the battery are highly related to the job requirements; and
  3. there is clear evidence that the tests are predictive of job performance.

The strongest form of evidence is a statistical validation study that demonstrates a relationship between test scores and job performance measures for the specific jobs at issue. Content validation studies provide a less-strong form of evidence, though their utility can be strengthened by demonstrating that the tests used have effectiveness that has been validated through statistical studies in work settings with comparable physical demands. The Uniform Guidelines also state that the validity of the battery must be reviewed on a periodic basis, and that individuals need to have an opportunity to be reconsidered if they fail.

  • Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
Ability To Perform The Job

The major thrust of the ADA is to assure that individuals are evaluated on the basis of their ability to currently perform the job regardless of whether they have or are perceived to have a disability. To this end, the ADA also emphasizes thorough understanding of the job requirements, particularly the "essential job functions", and reiterates the importance of job-relatedness of any tests given. Physical ability tests are specifically recognized as an acceptable way to evaluate an individual's ability to perform the essential job functions.

Pre- vs. Post-Offer Testing

A unique feature of the ADA is the further definition of when physical ability testing can be performed in the employee selection process. According to the ADA, some forms of physical ability testing can be given prior to an offer of hire, but the employer cannot ask questions at that point that may identify a disability, questions that may be very important in determining whether there is a risk factor for the job candidate in taking the test. For instance, it is useful for the test administrator to know whether an individual is currently experiencing back pain or is under a lifting restriction from their physician before giving them a strength test involving lifting from floor level. The pre-offer alternative is to have all candidates receive medical clearance from their personal physician to take the test. This alternative can induce additional time delay, may be cost-prohibitive for job applicants and may also be infeasible for candidates who do not have a personal physician. Another alternative is to perform the test after a conditional job offer has been made, which is referred to as post-offer testing. The ADA allows employers to ask medical questions under this condition.

Physical ability tests that involve the monitoring of heart rate or other physiologic parameters are considered to be medical tests, which must be given post-offer. The step test used by AEI to assess cardiovascular endurance involves the monitoring of heart rate, so batteries including this test must be given post-offer. AEI recommends to their clients that any physical ability tests be given post-offer, regardless of whether it is required due to inclusion of the step test, simply so that the precaution can be utilized of having the participant complete a health questionnaire prior to testing.


Reasonable Accommodation

The ADA also requires that employers consider reasonable accommodations in the testing process and on the job if an applicant meets the "disabled" definition of the act. This can mean that if a candidate states that they are disabled and would be able to perform the test in a different manner, that the request needs to be considered. For instance, cardiovascular endurance can be evaluated using a treadmill, bicycle or step bench, among other possibilities. If the standard approach being used by the employer is a step bench but the candidate is unable to step up and down, a candidate who qualifies as being considered "disabled" could request to be tested with a treadmill or a bicycle. If the job does not actually require stepping up and down, the employer may accommodate the request. Likewise, it is possible that a disabled candidate would request to modify the manner in which they demonstrate their ability to perform a lift on the job given the nature of their disability. The employer would need to evaluate whether that modification would be a reasonable accommodation on the job.


What should I consider in selecting a testing provider?

There are a number of issues that should be considered when evaluating a testing provider. These are discussed in depth in the AEI - Program in Review