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Is it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for an employer to ask a candidate with a back injury to get a doctor's note for lifting 100 pounds?

Wednesday June 11, 2014
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Question:

Dear Nancy,

I became an RN in January 2004 and was involved in an auto accident in November 2004. I sustained herniated discs in my cervical and lumbar spine. I underwent a cervical fusion in 2005, and have had no cervical problems since. I was advised not to have lumbar surgery, as I do not have neurological impairment. I have been under the care of a pain management specialist since 2004, and I have been working as an RN in both clinical and administrative capacities since 2004.

I interviewed for a position at a local hospital working in a clinical capacity. During the interview with the unit manager, I fully disclosed my injury, and I stated it would not prevent me from performing the essential functions of the position in which I was applying for. After the completion of the interview, I was offered a position and sent of letter from the facility confirming the job offer. During a pre-employment screening, it was requested by the employee health department that I obtain a certification from my physician certifying that I was capable of independently lifting up to 100 pounds without assistance. I gave this form to my physician to review and complete, but feel this may be an attempt to disqualify me, because of my disability. While touring the unit on which I would be working, I noticed most of the nurses would not be able to lift 100 pounds independently. While I may be able to lift a patient over 100 pounds independently, I do not feel this to be a safe practice. In the four years I have worked as an RN, I have always lifted patients with at least one other person or used a mechanical lift for the safety of the patient. Doesn't this request of this prospective employer violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which indicates an employer may not discriminate against a candidate who may perform the core functions of a position with reasonable accommodation such as a mechanical lift or another co-worker?

Colin

Dear Nancy replies:

Dear Colin,

It is not clear why the pre-employment physician requested the letter concerning your ability to lift a 100 pound patient on your own. Is this something asked of every applicant? Does the job description for this position require this? It does seem interesting that on your tour you noticed that most of the nurses could not meet this requirement, which does bring the question under scrutiny, but it is still unclear why it is being asked and what it signifies.

You are correct in your understanding of the Americans With Disabilities Act that if an applicant/employee with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation, they cannot be discriminated against in terms of hiring, promotion and other employee benefits. You were upfront with your disability, the employer is aware of it now, and if you get the letter from your physician supporting your abilities to lift patients by yourself, the employer couldnít not hire you due to the disability. In fact, if you asked for a second person to help with the lifting or requested a mechanical lift, these would qualify as reasonable accommodations.

The ADA notwithstanding, an overall concern in your question is the requirement of any staff member being able to life a 100-pound patient on his or her own. There is much research and information available about safe patient handling, including one study that indicates 35 pounds should be the limit for one staff person to manually lift and that a nurse should not be manually pushing or pulling anything more than 20% of his or her weight (Menzel and others, "Strengthening Your Evidence Base: Focus On Safe Patient Handling", American Nurse Today at http://www.americannursetoday.com/article.aspx?id=6912&fid=6846
). The CDC's "Workplace Safety & Health" article discusses safe patient handling and lists many links to additional resources on this issue, including patient lifting in specific patient care settings and can be accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/safepatient/ .

It might be very important for you to consider taking this job if the requirement of manually lifting a 100-pound patient, without a mechanical lifting device or another person (if possible), is where you would like to work. Good for you that you might be able to lift such a patient on your own. The real question is should you be doing so?

Cordially, Nancy


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.