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Strict physical requirements appropriate for risky jobs

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Some jobs are more dangerous than others if employees can’t perform them safely. Truck drivers, pilots and train engineers, for example, must be physically fit because the consequences of an accident are serious.

For those types of positions, you can require periodic physical exams and suspend employees found to have physical problems that could increase the likelihood of an accident. If you do so, you don’t have to worry that you’ll violate the ADA—as long as your requirements are reasonable and based on business necessity.

Recent case: Norfolk Southern Railway suspended Paul Snyder from his job as a locomotive engineer. A routine physical exam revealed evidence of lingering heart disease following a heart attack. The railroad told Snyder he could be reinstated if his condition improved, as judged by a neutral doctor or according to the results of a later physical exam.

Snyder had another stress test about nine months after his suspension. This time, the results showed no evidence of heart problems. The railway reinstated him, but Snyder sued anyway, alleging that by suspending him, the railway had “regarded” him as disabled, something the ADA prohibits.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to toss out Snyder’s case. It said that the railway had a good reason for insisting that someone with a heart condition not work as an engineer—a sudden heart attack would jeopardize the safe operation of the train. If a medical condition made Snyder less than ideally suited for the job, the railway was free to place limits on his employment, even though his condition didn’t substantially limit a major life function. (Snyder v. Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation, No. 06-5084, 3rd Cir., 2008)

Final note: The employer did everything right in this case. It had clear rules for physical exams, allowed an independent doctor to review the findings and reinstated the employee when his physical condition improved.

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