Clear, accurate, and detailed job descriptions can help employers avoid hiring the wrong person for the job, facilitate the return to work of injured workers, and reduce legal challenges. At the Workers’ Compensation Institute’s annual educational conference in Orlando, Jaime Sigurdsson, an exercise physiologist and director of workers’ compensation at CORA Physical Therapy in Longwood, Florida, explained that the job description should include essential job functions, knowledge and critical skills, physical demands, environmental factors, and any other explanatory information that may help clarify the job. The more specific, the better.
Some companies omit the necessary specifics. As an example, she explained that a requirement for a worker to lift 50 pounds doesn’t explain if it’s once or several times a day. It also does not separate method from function; instead of ‘lifting,’ ‘relocate’ may be more accurate.
A recent winner of the National Underwriter’s Excellence in Workers’ Compensation Risk Management Award, Kansas City-based Cosentino’s Food Store revamped its workers’ comp program in 2012 and has seen a 49 percent reduction of overall program cost on a per-employee, per-month basis. A key element of the program is a thorough job analysis.
In the grocery industry, most injuries are musculoskeletal, often related to lifting. Others include lacerations from box cutters or knives and the usual slips, trips and falls. In a recent propertycasualty360.com article, Aaron J. Greer, director of human resources for Cosentino’s Food Stores, noted the process starts with a thorough job analysis and post-offer testing, which means the workers hired are better able to handle the jobs with less risk of injury.
He recommends spending time in each department to better understand the risks employees face and then drafting the most detailed job analysis possible. To actually experience the job is eye-opening; it uncovers risks and can shed light on alternative methods of performing essential jobs.
In addition to the hiring process, a detailed job description can facilitate an injured worker’s recovery process. During recovery, workers can do a modified version of their job or a slightly different job and gradually progress to full recovery. To make this happen, the treating physician must have essential information about workplace policies, job demands and the availability of transitional work. Greer shares his job descriptions with the company’s medical providers and invites them to the stores to see firsthand how employees do their jobs, matching actions to job descriptions.
When an employer can select their physicians, it’s important to choose doctors who are experienced and understand the nuances of occupational health. A thorough job description will help ensure that workers can get back to work and function quickly – but not so quickly that they reinjure themselves. Employers who can’t influence physician selection should look to case managers or nurse triage providers who are closely aligned with the company’s recovery-at-work philosophy.
Since the Cosentino stores are open long hours, they established an open-to-close program with a dedicated phone line that connects employees to a nurse assigned to them. Well-versed in the stores’ processes, the nurse understands the detailed job requirements, and directs injured employees to the correct provider immediately. The early intervention reduces the likelihood that the claim will escalate.
When done properly, job descriptions can also protect employers from lawsuits related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws that protect workers from discrimination. While the law does require accommodations in most cases, case law has generally supported employers when an employee cannot perform the “essential job functions.” Inadequate or inaccurate job descriptions can complicate a claim and lead to bad outcomes for both the employer and the employee.
Equally problematic is overstating the job requirements. Weight loads get many employers into trouble, as demonstrated by a recent case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Victor E. Pfendler v. Liberty Dialysis-Hawaii L.L.C. While the job description asserted that lifting 75 to 100 pounds was an essential job function, in reality, the most that was lifted on a regular basis was about 40 pounds. The court noted, “if lifting more than 50 pounds was not an essential function of the job, he would have been a qualified individual and Liberty’s refusal to allow him to return to the (dialysis) position may have been discriminatory.”
Detailed job descriptions are a critical component of a successful Workers’ Comp program. With a robust program, the employee feels valued, protected, and knows appropriate work will be available if they are injured. It’s not a restriction; it’s a way to help them stay on the job and maintain a healthy and productive life.
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