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Social Security Disability Blog

What Are “Exertional Levels” And Why Are They Important In A Social Security Disability Case?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
What Are “Exertional Levels” And Why Are They Important In A Social Security Disability Case?

The amount of exertion (or effort) required in a particular job is a key component in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) analysis of every disabilityclaim. The SSA classifies each job by how much exertion is required. For example, work that requires very little effort or exertion is considered to be “sedentary.” While, at the other end of the spectrum, jobs which require extreme exertion are classified as “heavy.”

The following illustrates what I consider to be the most important differences between the different exertional levels:

  • Sedentary work involves no lifting of anything heavier than 10 pounds. It also is mainly performed sitting with up to 2 hours during the day of standing or walking around.
  • Light work requires a little more exertion. These jobs involve lifting of up to 20 pounds and the majority of the day is usually spent standing or walking.
  • Medium jobs can involve lifting up to 50 pounds. Workers in these jobs are usually on their feet almost all of the day and are also expected to be able to frequently bend or stoop.

There is really no point in discussing heavy work. If the claimant could perform heavy work it would be extremely difficult to prove disability.

The exertional levels are used in three different steps in the disability evaluation process: determining residual functional capacity, evaluating whether the claimant can perform their past work, and, if not, whether they can perform some other type of work.

Residual Functional Capacity

The very first step in determining whether someone is “disabled’ is to determine what level of exertion they can still perform, despite their disabilities. This is referred to as their residual functioning capacity (RFC). Can the claimant still perform sedentary work? Light work? Medium work?

Past Work

Once the RFC is determined, the next step is to determine whether this RFC would preclude them from performing their past relevant work. So let’s say SSA has determined that a claimant has a RFC to do sedentary work. SSA will then examine the jobs the claimant has had for the last 15 years. In this review, the SSA will classify those jobs by their exertional levels. (For example, if the claimant had performed construction work for the last 15 years the exertional level would be heavy.) If any of the past work was performed at the sedentary exertional level, the SSA will most likely deny the claim because the claimant can return to their past work. If the past relevant work was all more than sedentary, the evaluation of the claim continues.

Other Work

So once the SSA has established that the claimant cannot perform their past work, the question then becomes would the claimant be able to work at another job given their sedentary RFC. This analysis focuses on the claimant’s age, education and work experience, with age being by far the most important factor. (See Age: A Crucial Factor in Your Social Security Disability Case). For a claimant with the RFC for sedentary work, the determinative factor is usually age:

  • If the claimant is over 50, then it will be presumed that he or she will not be able to transition to this new exertional level unless the claimant has special skills through work experiences or education that would allow for employment at that level.
  • If the claimant is under 50, it will be presumed that regardless of education or work experience, the claimant is young enough to learn the skills necessary for sedentary work.

The analysis is similar if the claimant’s RFC is determined to be either light or medium. Disability in both of those situations, though, becomes more difficult to prove.

One final note regarding exertional levels. The analysis above only applies to the claimant’s exertional (effort-based) limitations. These are limitations in the ability to lift, sit, stand, and make various postural movements. In most cases there are also non-exertional limitations - such as the affect of pain on the ability to concentrate while at work. For more on these non-exertional limitations see What Are Non-Exertional Limitations?

By David Galinis


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