Physical exam for employee returning to work may be illegal

Can an employee who is returning to work after surgery be given an exam to make sure he or she is up to the job? The answer is yes…although this is a very tricky area, because these exams can also violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In a recent case, a mill worker underwent knee surgery. Before she could come back to work, her employer made her take a “physical capacity evaluation.” An occupational therapist evaluated the employee and recommended that she not return to work, and she was terminated. She sued under the ADA.

The ADA says that employers can require workers to undergo physical capacity evaluations, but they can’t make them take “medical exams” except under certain circumstances. So the question was whether the mill worker’s test really amounted to a “medical exam.”

In the case, the therapist didn’t just test the employee’s muscle strength and range of motion. The therapist also measured her heart rate and tested her breathing after working out on a treadmill. The court said the heart and breathing tests weren’t necessary to determine if the employee could return to work, and might have amounted to an illegal medical exam that violated the ADA. We’d be happy to help if you’re concerned about what’s allowed in this difficult area.