Pre-Employment Physical Exam Guidelines

Doctor and patient in examination room


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If you're job hunting, you may be asked to pass a physical exam, either before an employer extends a job offer or during the interview process. Depending on the type of exam, the nature of the job, and other factors, it’s often legal for a prospective employer to ask candidates to take a physical exam. But there are conditions regarding what the employer can ask, what type of exam can be performed, and when an examination can take place.

Most of the rules pertaining to pre-employment physical exams are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies to private companies with 15 or more employees. It also applies to state and local government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions.

This legislation makes it illegal to discriminate against employees, or job seekers, based on disability. It also covers a number of other potential areas of discrimination, such as transportation, public accommodations, and access to state and local services.

Legal Guidelines for Pre-Employment Physical Exams

To protect job applicants against discrimination, the ADA prohibits requiring a medical exam prior to extending a job offer. However, employers are allowed to ask prospective employees to take a medical exam after making a conditional job offer, as long as they require all applicants for the same job to undergo the same exam. Employers can also ask job applicants to describe, or demonstrate, how they would perform specific job functions prior to extending an offer.

Pre-employment examinations may include physical exams as well as health inquiries, including drug and alcohol tests, psychological tests, and physical or mental health assessments.

Additionally, employees may be required to have physicals if health or fitness is a job requirement. For example, police officers or firefighters may be asked to demonstrate the physical fitness necessary to perform their jobs.

Employer Requirements for Pre-Employment Physical Exams

Illustration showing types of pre-employment physicals
The Balance

An employer can require potential new hires to undergo a physical examination as long as they have the same requirement for all other candidates in the same job category.

The results of the exam cannot discriminate against the worker, and their medical records and history must be kept confidential and separate from their other records.

The person administering the assessment must fully understand the expectations of the position to determine if the potential employee would be able to perform the job.

Employers are also required to make “reasonable accommodation” for candidates with disabilities to enable them to be considered for a job opening. They cannot refuse to consider candidates with disabilities who require accommodation.

Drug and Alcohol Tests

Employers administer drug tests for a variety of reasons, such as decreasing absenteeism and on-the-job accidents, improving productivity, and reducing liability for the company.

Employment candidates may be asked to take a variety of drug tests. These include urine drug screening, hair, drug or alcohol testing, saliva drug screening, and sweat drug screening.

State laws also restrict or regulate employment drug testing. To learn what’s allowed in your state, refer to your state department of labor’s website.

Physical Ability Tests

Physical ability tests measure the physical ability of an applicant to perform a particular task or the strength of specific muscle groups, as well as overall strength and stamina.

Employers may conduct these tests may be conducted for potential employees in the manual and physical labor sectors. Abilities such as stamina, flexibility, and strength are most commonly considered. For example, employers may ask job seekers to prove that they can lift a set amount of weight, which is a requirement for successfully performing that particular job.

Physical ability tests can be the basis of employment-based legal battles. Women, minorities, and the elderly may be subject to inequitable or uneven testing. Furthermore, certain conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, heart problems, and other health problems are cited differently under the ADA. It's worth noting that employers may be liable for any injury incurred during a physical ability test.

The Bottom Line

A pre-employment physical exam assures companies that prospective employees are physically and mentally able to take on the responsibilities of a job. In general, the exam includes checking a candidate's vital signs, weight, temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. It may also include specific tests such as drug and alcohol testing, physical ability and stamina testing, and psychological testing.

While specific tests may be a standard requirement, it's important for employees to recognize employer discrimination when it occurs, as well as understand the laws set out by the ADA to protect them.