Should Workplace Assessments Be Conducted?

There are many people who believe that their workplace testing is wrong or should be different. The criticisms and comments below may not apply to many occupations and locations, as there is active work in many areas to improve their selection testing protocols, though there are still many that appear to be behind the times.

Why Test

There can be several arguments in favor of requiring recruits to pass a fitness test. In some areas, such as law enforcement personnel, there is a documented high level of serious health risk problems in terms of cardiovascular disease, lower back disorders and obesity. To minimize this known risk, physical fitness is encouraged. Physical fitness has also been demonstrated to be a bona fide occupational qualification. Job analyses that account for physical fitness have demonstrated that the fitness areas are underlying factors determining the physiological readiness to perform a variety of critical tasks. Fitness level has also been shown to be predictive of sick time and job performance indicators. Therefore, physical fitness can be an important area for minimizing liability. The unfit person is less able to respond fully to strenuous physical activity. Consequently, the risk of not performing physical duties is increased. 

Test Criticisms

While it is quite convincing that testing is needed, the actual tests performed are highly variable and have come under a lot of criticism, and not just by those who struggle to pass them.

An important thing to consider is the validity of these tests. How do these tests relate to performance in the field? How does it relate to work performance in the job itself? For example, Navy personnel may do a running test, Air Force personnel cycling and Army personnel chins and sit-ups. For these personnel, are there better tests that more closely reflect job performance or the identified physical demands based on their duties or core functions? For example, a Captain of a ship would want to know how good the officers are in responding to a fire at sea - a worst possible scenario. What is their response time? Not how many push ups can they perform? The design of a test to assess these physical abilities may involve responding to a critical incident like a fire, so the response may include opening and securing heavy doors (strength), negotiating stairways and narrow landings (agility & power), run the length of a landing (speed) all performed in protective equipment and carrying necessary equipment (aerobic endurance). The Control phase may involve dragging out a hose, securing it and then charging it to putting out a simulated fire or involve the use of heavy equipment i.e. launching a life boat. And finally the removal phase may involve the dragging of a mannequin a set distance to simulate a victim rescue. Or being the navy there may be a swim phase to finish to simulate escaping the ship etc. Such a test would appear to be of more benefit to staff training and safety than performing something like sit ups.

It may sound as if I am in favor of performance tests specific to the occupation. However, specific tests to measure components of fitness, such as speed, strength and endurance, are sometimes required to determine where any limitations may lie. Someone may pass a general performance test using their exceptional strength, but with a very poor aerobic endurance level.

A problem with specific tests such as push ups is how they relate to the job. For example, how many push-ups does a policeman have to perform to be able to restrain an offender? Is is right for someone not to get a job because they cannot do enough sit ups, when the job doesn't require you to do a sit up in performing your duties. In this example, the sit up test is performed to obtain a measure of abdominal strength, but what level gives you adequate strength to perform your job? There are many other factors involved.

And why do they allow for different levels for females and sometimes different age categories, when all staff work under the same conditions and wear the same uniform? Due to generally lower strength and endurance etc. levels for women and older people, the setting of standard test target for all ages and both sexes can be seen as a disadvantage, and possible discrimination. On the other hand, it can easily be argued that they are also required to perform the same job as the males, and therefore require the same minimum fitness levels. Strength is specific to the task required. If a female can do 15 push ups on her knees and a male only 10 full push ups who is the most suitable candidate for the job? See these two polls: Should women have the same fitness testing standards as men?, and Should Forces Testing Standards Be Age Related?

It was announced in 2009 that the Australian defence forces were working on developing new physical tests for recruits that will be based on achieving performance targets irrespective of age or gender. The new tests (being developed jointly by the Department of Defence's Centre of Expertise and the University of Wollongong) will involve a series of complex tests simulating combat situations, with many women capable of passing the tests. This is a step towards allowing women to fight on the front line, those who can pass the same physical tests as their male counterparts should have the opportunity to undertake the same combat duties as the males. At the moment the basic fitness assessment includes a 2.4km run and push-ups and sit-ups tests with targets based on age and various factors. The new tests will involve four tests measuring strength, aerobic capacity, endurance, power and speed and include carrying weights and body armor over distances. They will aim to have physical standards that accurately measure a person's ability to perform a variety of jobs that make up a modern Australian Defence Force.

Although many workplaces are trying to update their testing protocols, these criticisms I do not think have been adequately addressed. There is no simple answer, and the discussion will continue. The appropriate tests need to be determined on an individual basis.

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