There are two parties integral to the success of any return to work scenario: worker and employer. And both parties have to be ready, willing and able to make the concessions and accommodations that may be necessary to implement a successful reintegration of the injured worker. However, just like each injury is unique, so is each disability case, and whether the injury happened as a direct result of the job or not, customizing the transition back to work to fit the worker is as important as making the accommodations fit the injury.
“Both the employer and employee should be doing something,” says Dr. Manny Halpern, Research Assistant Professor at New York University’s School of Medicine whose work concentrates on office ergonomics and disability management.
In the office environment, says Halpern, equipment and software make accommodating an injured worker in a return-to-work program simpler, but it’s not always just a matter of handing the worker new equipment and moving on. Training works in some cases, Halpern says, but not all. “I’ve encountered cases where someone is excusing herself from shaking hands because of shoulder problems, but the next thing you know, she’s cradling the phone again with her shoulder. With these kind of people, training won’t do anything. [The employer] simply needs to do it for them,” he says.
“Another problem with return-to-work comes when medical management is not part of the ergonomics program. [For each injury] you’ll have different accommodations for different individuals,” says Halpern. Knowing exactly what the employee can and can’t do is imperative to success.
Addressing the office worker’s return-to-work environment carefully is equally as important. “You must be aware that the new equipment won’t transfer the problem to another part of the body,” he says.
Ultimately, bringing someone in who is trained in ergonomics assessments to review the workplace can make accommodations more effective. “Employers can’t expect a worker to observe themselves. It’s very useful to have someone come in and make a professional judgment,” Halpern says.
Lastly, Halpern cautions that sometimes the biggest hurdle in managing office worker disabilities is just getting information regarding the injury and the worker’s limitations. “People don’t always report their injuries [to employers] in office environments,” he says. “They may go to their own doctor instead. Then they’re present at work but they may not be fully productive.”
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2004-04-01.