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Heavy Lifting | Is It Time for a Job Description Overhaul?

Looking to hire a new employee? An accurate job description serves as a great starting point to find and hire the right worker for an open position. But if you’re only using it for hiring, you might be missing out on some of the best applications for this useful resource.

For example, a job description with a list of physical demands can help guide a physician to write better light- and / or modified-duty recommendations for an injured worker. Likewise, if a question arises regarding an employee’s fitness for duty, a physician would have the information needed to make proper decisions regarding employment or accommodations.job description

The key to getting all of these benefits from a job description is having an accurate physical demands section. Although developing a list of physical demands may seem simple and straightforward, there are a number of points employers should keep in mind to make their job descriptions both effective and compliant with federal regulations. Ready to learn more? Keep reading!

The Current Practice
Many employers cover physical demands information in one paragraph or even one sentence within the context of describing the job duties. The most common physical demand currently found in job descriptions is, “Must be able to lift 50 pounds.” When employers are asked how they came up with this information, they often say that “it just seems right” or that anybody doing physical work should be able to lift at least that amount of weight. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s time to update your job descriptions.

The Red Tape
In order to write an effective physical demands section, it is important to know the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the ADA does not require employers to develop or maintain job descriptions, it does stipulate that when they are used, they should accurately reflect the functions of a job.1
Additional requirements include the following:

  1.  During the pre-offer stage of an employment application, employers may not ask disability-related questions; however, they may ask about an applicant’s ability to perform specific job functions such as lifting a certain amount of weight or climbing ladders. Employers may also ask applicants to describe or demonstrate how they would perform job tasks.
  2.  During the post-offer stage, they may ask disability-related questions and require medical examinations. However, if an applicant is rejected due to these questions or tests, the employer must demonstrate that the rejection is job-related and consistent with business necessity.2

Whether applying the job description to the pre-offer or post-offer stages of hiring, the ADA makes it clear that job descriptions must be accurate and job-related. Simply guessing that a job requires an individual to lift 50 pounds is inaccurate and could be deemed discriminatory. This is true of any physical demand that hasn’t been observed and measured.

Get It Done Right
Let’s assume you’re hiring for a position called “dough maker” in a bread factory. You notice the job description says, “Must be able to lift 50 pounds.” You know measurements were never taken, so you contact a consultant to update the job description, which, after observation and measuring, reads like this:

“Must be able to lift 35-pound bags of flour from six-inch pallets, carry 10 feet, climb three dough-maker machine steps and open /dump flour bags over vat rim 80 inches above the floor.”

A complete description might also include other observed essential functions such as pushing and pulling a pallet jack, climbing steps to a catwalk, etc. The advantages of this updated description include:

  • The job description is now ADA compliant.
  • Job applicants now know exactly what the job entails and can better determine whether they can perform those duties.
  • If a physical testing component is added to the hiring process, enough information is available to develop an accurate test.
  • If there are light-duty, return-to-work or fitness-for-duty questions, a point of comparison now exists against which you can compare the individual’s physical abilities to determine if they are a match for all or parts of the job.

Testing the Waters
While many employers are satisfied with the benefits of accurate physical demands in their job descriptions alone, others want to engage in the more involved process of testing employees’ physical abilities following a conditional job offer. Research performed on this process shows:

  •  As job-strength requirements exceed the measured strength of workers, incidents and severity rates increased 3:1 for back injuries and other strains.3
  • Pre-work functional screens significantly lowered the severity of back sprains and strains, medical costs and lost time for workers hired into physically laborious jobs.4
  •  Post-offer screening decreases lost days by 18% and overall injury costs by 78%, with an overall return on investment of 18:1.5

It is important to note that not every job area or company is a good match for these types of detailed physical demands or physical demands testing. Listed below are characteristics of jobs that would likely benefit, and those where there would be questionable benefit:

Likely Benefit

  •  Material handling jobs
  •  Heavy assembly jobs
  •  Jobs with low product turnover
  •  Jobs with high injury rates
  •  Jobs involving injured workers returning to the workforce

Questionable Benefit

  • Clerical and office positions
  • Jobs with high product turnover (if the product being manufactured is constantly changing, the physical demands section of the job description will need to be constantly updated, which most will find impossible)
  • Jobs that primarily involve light fine motor tasks

Start Off on the Right Foot
Making sure that the physical demands of a job description are arrived at through actual observations and measurements can help make job descriptions ADA compliant and serve as a powerful tool when questions regarding hiring, work restrictions and fitness-for-duty arise. Investing the time and energy now can help ensure that good employment decisions are made down the road, which can ultimately help organizations work toward greater productivity and better bottom-line results.

1 “Americans with Disabilities Act: Questions and Answers.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. February 4, 2009. Accessed on January 25, 2016 at
2 “ADA Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Questions and Medical Examinations.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website. Accessed on January 25, 2016 at
3 Chaffin, D.B., Herrin, G.D., & Keyserling, W.M. “Pre-employment Strength Testing.” Journal of Occupational Medicine. June 1978. 20(6), 403-408.
4 Nassau, D.W. “The Effects of Prework Functional Screening on Lowering an Employer’s Injury Rate, Medical Costs, and Lost Workdays.” February 1, 1999. Spine, 24(3), 269-274.
5 Littleton, M. “Cost-Effectiveness of a Prework Screening Program for the University of Illinois at Chicago Physical Plant.” 2003. Work, 21(3):243-50.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the SilverLink magazine, under the title “Heavy Lifting | Is It Time for a Job Description Overhaul?” To receive a complimentary subscription to the SilverLink magazine, sign up here.

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