Return to work plans: Assessing work restrictions

This introduction is the first post in a series about effective assessment of work restrictions, successful accommodations and return to work plans.

Identifying the right solution to accommodate a work restriction is not always obvious. Following a consistent analytical process can ensure key details are not missed, helping to avoid potential issues such as employee and employer frustration or a potential impact on employee safety. Putting the right process in place can be crucial to a successful, organized return to work plan and can help to address costs, time and confusion.

For the first part of my series on developing a successful return to work plan, I have developed a step-by-step guide to an ergonomic evaluator’s assessment of an employee and his or her work restrictions. An ergonomic assessment is just one important aspect of a return to work plan, so understanding this process is crucial for HR managers.

Before a proper evaluation can begin, the ergonomic evaluator needs to review the following items:

  • Employee’s job description
  • Employee’s job analysis, which describes the mental and physical tasks involved
  • Employee’s medical information, including:
    • Functional capacities evaluations
    • Attending physician’s statements

The evaluator also needs to conduct the following interviews:

  • Treating physician interview
  • Employee interview or assessment
  • Employer interview

Step 1: Case review
By reviewing the employee’s job description, job analysis and work restrictions, the evaluator is able to identify potential barriers to a successful return to work.

If necessary, and with employee consent, the treating physician can be contacted for clarification of the work restrictions and a better understanding of the job tasks that will pose barriers to the employee. In this phase of the process, the Job Accommodation Network can be very helpful because it offers a section on guidance for medical professionals.

Step 2: Evaluation
Once the evaluator has a firm understanding of the employee’s job description and medical information, the employee evaluation can begin.

According to a paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),1 the ergonomics risk management process involves understanding the employee’s job tasks and how the employee uses equipment, tools, and his or her workstation and environment to complete those tasks.

For example, in the mining industry, ergonomics risk management processes should ensure that an employee’s tasks can be performed with:

  • Dynamic and varied movements of all parts of the body
  • Low to moderate force levels
  • Varied, comfortable postures
  • An avoidance of vibration
  • Scheduled breaks to allow sufficient recovery1

The ultimate goal is to gain perspective about the employee’s condition, understand the physical and mental demands of the job, and ensure the tasks can be completed with the employee’s needs in mind.

Step 3: Employer interview
Following the employee evaluation, the evaluator needs to interview the employer to verify the employee’s job tasks, confirm the job’s physical and mental demands, and discuss the identified barriers requiring accommodations. Once this assessment is completed, the evaluator will propose one or more accommodation scenarios to the employee and employer.

Step 4: Plan development
This document, put together by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in Ontario, Canada, includes a variety of sample return to work plans to assist you with creating your own.2

It is important to list the following items in your company’s return to work plans:

  • The return to work goal
  • Actions required to achieve the goal
  • Time frames for achieving the goal
  • Each job task requiring accommodations
  • A description of how each job task relates to the work restrictions
  • The proposed solution
  • Duration of the work restrictions (temporary or permanent)
  • A weekly itemization of the work restrictions, work schedule and permitted hours as they change throughout the recovery process

Please be sure to connect with your legal advisor regarding how the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may affect your return to work plan.

Having a thorough review process, properly analyzing all relevant case components and organizing this information in a categorized, readable return-to-work plan will prove to be a valuable tool. It will act as a reference that all parties will be able to understand and implement appropriately.


1Ergonomics Processes Implementation Guide and Tools for the Mining Industry. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/pubs/pdfs/2009-107.pdf. Accessed January 18, 2012.
2Samples of Return to Work Plans. Available at: http://www.wsib.on.ca/files/Content/Downloadable%20FileSampleRTWPlans/SamplesRTWplans.pdf. Accessed March 29, 2012.

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