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Ask an HR Expert: Can We Require an Older Employee to Get a Medical Exam?

A SHRM HR Knowledge Center advisor has guidance on balancing employee privacy and workforce safety.

​One of our older employees needs to lift objects and climb ladders on the job but has vision and balance problems. Can we require him to undergo a medical exam?

Yes, if the worker is having difficulty performing his essential job functions and there is a legitimate business necessity for the exam. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also allows employers to require an assessment if the employee poses a direct threat to his own safety or that of others.

When determining whether a medical test is necessary, focus on whether the worker is performing his core tasks at an acceptable level compared to co-workers in similar occupations with comparable experience and job-related skills, without regard to age or perceived impairments.

If he is and you can’t identify a direct safety threat, don’t hold the worker to a higher standard based on his age alone—or to a lower one either, for that matter. You are not required to reduce your expectations of job performance because someone is older.

[SHRM members-only resource: HR Q&As

If you suspect a medical exam is necessary, first determine whether you can offer a reasonable accommodation to reduce or eliminate the risk of harm. If you can’t, consider additional factors before making the final call, including the:

  • Duration of the risk.
  • Nature and severity of the potential danger.
  • Likelihood the potential harm will occur.
  • Imminence of the threat.

For example, how often is Bob required to use the ladder? Is that an essential part of his job? If so, how likely is it that he will fall and hurt himself or others? 

Proactive employers can take steps to prepare the workplace for aging workers. For example, train managers, provide ergonomic workplaces and remove risks such as tripping hazards. In some situations, a medical exam might be the best way to ensure the safety of all your employees.

Regan Gross, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Center advisor with the Society for Human Resources Manaagement.

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