This is the first in a series of newsletters where we will take a closer look at the integrated approach and the benefits that such an approach produces from a people, economic, and risk/legal perspective.
In our recently-published paper, Recovery Ready, we observe that we’re heading into a uniquely-challenging time when many companies will experience shortfall in human capital capacity. The human effort required to keep up with post-pandemic demand and to capitalize on growth opportunities will be greater than the skills, strength, endurance, and will of the available workforce.
The demand/supply imbalance is most severe in blue collar jobs which where a crisis was brewing prior to the pandemic, and the gap is exacerbated by a range of factors, including pandemic-related mental health issues; physical deconditioning of many who have been out of work for several months; long-term health effects suffered by some who have had COVID-19; and an evolving and more watchful regulatory environment.
In the paper, we proposed an approach for companies to safely return to full-speed operations and growth by integrating four key elements: 1) Job Analysis and Validation; 2) Fit-for-Duty Testing; 3) Post-Offer Employment Testing; and 4) Enlisting the support of a Part-Time Medical Director (see figure).
This is the first in a series of newsletters where we will take a closer look at the integrated approach and the benefits that such an approach produces from a people, economic, and risk/legal perspective. For insights, we interviewed WorkSTEPS experts who bring diverse experiences and customer-focused perspectives to the conversation.
Interviewer: The first topic we want to discuss is where you could say the conversation about return to work safety and health begins and ends – with the employee. Why is it important to start here?
Cindy: I am really glad we’re starting here. The tendency when talking about anything from a safety perspective is to jump to the financial, legal, and regulatory benefits. And while those are all important, they are all rooted in one way or another in the health, safety, and quality of life of employees.
Larry: I agree. There is a tendency to focus on things like the size of a worker’s compensation claim – the $20,000 to $30,000 paid to an employee as compensation for a non-complicated back injury, for instance – but there is a reason those compensation schedules exist, and they have to do with the sometimes life altering impacts that injuries will have on people.
Interviewer: How does the integrated approach to returning people safely to work recommended in your paper benefit people?
Spencer: At its core, the approach we’re advocating is simply a way of making sure that: A) the company knows what a job requires; and B) the person who is being hired or returning to work is capable of performing the essential functions of that job.
Cindy: The National Academy of Sciences published a review of evidence regarding work-related musculoskeletal injuries that explains in detail the physiological breakdown and damage that occurs when job demands exceed a worker’s capacity. The point is simple: when the demands of a job exceed an employee’s ability to meet them, injuries happen. And those injuries can have long-term impacts on people’s physical and mental health, ability to work, and quality of life.
Larry: The approach we recommend begins with Job Analysis, where we measure the true physical demands of specific jobs. We capture with precision the mechanical forces required to do specific jobs. Does the job involve pushing something? How much force is needed and for how long, and where does that force need to be applied? Does the job involve turning something? How much force is needed? Is the work done overhead, at ground-level? We measure and document – again, with precision – providing a foundation for the testing process.
Spencer: Then there are two basic types of tests. The Post-Offer Functional Employment Test (POET) is performed after a prospective employee has been offered a job to make sure they are physically capable of doing the work they would be hired to perform. The Fit for Duty test is most frequently performed to make sure people returning to work after an injury are capable of doing so safely, but there are other times an employer may want to use Fit for Duty Testing…
Ben: Like when employees are returning from being furloughed or after a long illness – two scenarios that are pretty commonly related to the Pandemic.
Cindy: But again, the end result is that the process avoids putting people into jobs they are not physically capable of performing, avoiding painful, expensive, and potentially life-altering injuries.
Interviewer: So if someone fails the test – if they aren’t strong enough or fit enough to do the job – what happens?
Larry: For POET exams, prospective new hires might be able to do some physical training to improve their strength, flexibility, or endurance to enable them to do the job, and many candidates will do just that. They’ll commit to getting to the gym and return in three or four weeks, ready to try again. On the other hand, since the exam identifies the strength, flexibility, and essential functions the person CAN perform, they can often be placed in a less physically demanding job that they are qualified for.
Ben: If a person doesn’t pass a Fit for Duty exam, it might just mean they need more time rehabilitating their injury, or it’s possible that they could be given a temporary accommodation or be placed in a different and less physically-demanding role.
Interviewer: You’ve touched on this a bit, but are there any issues or opportunities specific to Covid-19 that we should talk about?
Cindy: One of the trends that has been accelerated by the pandemic is the use of robotics and other machines that have the impact of changing the amount of work and the type of work being done by humans. As a result of technology investments, some jobs that used to be very demanding are now less demanding, and that means more people can qualify to do them.
But, to take advantage of this, companies need to have the jobs that are impacted by those sorts of changes analyzed so new job descriptions and testing protocols can be put in place.
Ben: Something I’m dealing with a lot is what is commonly called “long-haul Covid-19 disease,” where people who got sick with Covid-19 never fully recovered. Common long-haul symptoms include fatigue, weakness, loss of lung function and chest pain. Clearly, if people are suffering these sorts of symptoms, it will be difficult and sometimes dangerous to return to physically-demanding jobs.
Spencer: And this is where the objectivity of a return-to-work Fit for Duty Test is really useful, because it allows us to determine whether and how much lingering symptoms might impair function and the ability for someone to safely return to work. Testing changes the nature of the return-to-work discussion from one that is subjective and potentially confrontational to one that is based on objective observations, and that’s incredibly helpful for everyone involved.
Larry: And that’s a good opening for me to make the following point. We are absolutely committed to protecting the health and safety of employees, but we’re not naïve to the reality that some employees are out to game the system. I started this business because I saw how a handful of employees were taking advantage of a sloppy and broken Workers’ Comp system to essentially steal from my father’s oil field business. As much as the systematic approach we’re talking about protects people from injury, it also protects companies from a financial and legal/risk perspective.
Interviewer: And that is a perfect way to close out this topic, because next, we’ll talk about how an integrated approach to job assessment and testing yields economic benefits to companies, and after that, we’ll focus on the legal/risk management benefits.
Want to learn more about how WorkSTEPS can help your company protect employee health and safety while managing risk and improving the bottom line? Go to www.worksteps.com, or email Cindy Gallaher at firstname.lastname@example.org.