Fitness for work, its role in reducing workplace injuries and workers’ compensation claims

Risk Matters - Winter 2023

Local governments face a range of challenges when managing their people, avoiding injury and reducing workers’ compensation claims. Like many industries, the sector is managing an ageing workforce and an increase in chronic issues such as obesity, heart disease, and mental illness.

The past few years have seen a steep increase in the cost of workers’ compensation claims for the local government sector. Claims are becoming more severe and complex and it’s taking an average of 36 days for injured workers to return. Ultimately, on average, outcomes are worsening for both employees and local government employers.

Proactive management of employee’s fitness for work is more important than ever at all stages of the lifecycle – right from the stage of interview to the end of employment. Individuals and employers both need a clear understanding of the psychological and physical demands of a role to make sure that injuries (and claims) are avoided.

We know that the longer a worker is away from work, the more likely their claim will develop complications or they may leave entirely.

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How to have a fitness for work conversation with your worker?

Having fitness for work conversations can be confronting and challenging for both leaders and workers as they may involve questions of personal health (mental or physical), uncertain outcomes, sensitive topics and strong emotions. As challenging as they are, they are a vital tool for effective people management.

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What is fitness for work?

According to WorkSafe, the concept of fitness for work is broad and deals with the relationship between a worker and their ability to do their role in the job safely and competently.

Fitness for work goes beyond qualifications and experience.

It deals with individual factors such as the effect of fatigue, alcohol and other drug use, medical fitness (if required for a specific role), and mental health and wellbeing.

Organisations should assess if individuals are able to safely complete their specific work-related activities. This means taking into consideration the person’s functional capacity, potential impact of any medical conditions they may have, and external factors such as nature of work, and working environment.

In order to meet their duty of care and protect workers from hazards, employers need to be aware of the physical and psychological requirements associated with each of the tasks that workers are required to perform.

Understanding the physical and psychological requirements of each job allows an employer to:

  • Identify and manage risks associated with the role.
  • Employ individuals who are likely to be able to meet the physical and psychological requirements of the job without injuring themselves.
  • Develop return to work programs for individuals returning to work after an injury or illness.

Employer’s WHS responsibilities and fitness to work

Under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act (WA) 2020, all ‘Person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBUs) have a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their workers while they are at work. In this context, ‘workers’ are those engaged, or caused to be engaged by the person and those whose activities in carrying out the work are influenced or directed by the person.

It’s important to remember that from a WHS perspective, volunteers are included in the definition of ‘workers’. This means that local governments also need to ensure that volunteers are ‘fit for work’.

This primary duty of care requires PCBUs to ensure health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable, by eliminating risks to health and safety. If this is not reasonably practicable, risks must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

‘Fit for work’ culture – getting everyone on the same page

Conceptually employers understand the importance of fitness for work and their responsibilities, however it can be a challenging area to put into practice. Many people managers feel uncomfortable making these enquiries and asking about potentially sensitive issues.

It’s vital that fitness for work is part of the organisational culture and is regularly discussed from different angles. Key elements that can shape a culture, which values and encourages fitness for work, can include:

  • Drug and alcohol, and fatigue policies
  • Health and wellbeing programs
  • Employee assistance program
  • Regular one-on-ones between managers and staff
  • Development of people leaders
  • Work, health and safety training

A key part of leading is building relationships with your staff and people leaders must be developed so that they feel comfortable to have regular one-on-one catch ups. A pattern of behaviour to ‘touch base’ allows fitness for work to be captured in the general management of people – looking at tasks and workload, performance, and professional and personal development. This provides a safe environment to discuss the issues impacting individuals and allows for conversations that naturally ease into fitness for work before the situation becomes critical.

Leaders must also ensure that they lead from the front demonstrating a commitment to organisational values and initiatives, for example if your local government is running a fitness challenge, there needs to be strong participation from the CEO and other leaders.

Consideration should also be given to support managers in having fitness for work conversations. This could include additional coaching or training for managers and supervisors on how to have difficult conversations, including how to prepare and practical tips for in the moment.

Avoiding the management of fitness for work can have serious implications for both the employer and employee; a proactive approach benefits all parties and ensures a safe workplace.

It’s important to recognise that when a fitness for work issue has been identified that it needs to be managed on a case-by-case basis. All parties in the organisation including human resources, safety officers, managers and the employee should understand their roles and responsibilities once a fitness for work issue is identified.

For advice in managing fitness for work issues, contact the WALGA Employee Relations team on 1300 366 956 or [email protected].

Injury prevention is better than rehab – tools for members

You need to have a proper plan in place to ensure that employees within your workplace are healthy and fit to do their job. Early intervention and prevention strategies are key to reducing workplace injuries. LGIS specialises in these strategies and can help your local government achieve desired results.

Pre-employment stage: Job dictionaries give clear instructions of how a job role should be performed. LGIS has over 35 job dictionaries for the most common roles in local government. For an employer, these help in determining whether a candidate is fit for the role of not. Medical assessment is another important tool that can help assess the fitness of a candidate.

Post-employment stage: Our injury prevention team organises several workshops for both employers and workers on crucial topics like manual tasks awareness, and ergonomics of your workstation and equipment. Our PEforM program educates and encourages local government staff to actively identify task risks and implement controls to reduce them.

Mental health equally plays a part in staying fit and our People Risk team offers a range of workshops to deal with issues within the workplace including managing psychological hazards, coping with workplace challenges and more.

Injury management with LGIS

Even after all these prevention strategies, injuries happen. In such a scenario employers need to be proactive and treat their workers with utmost care and respect.

The LGIS injury management team can provide a variety of proactive injury management solutions to ensure you are meeting your legislative responsibilities and providing the highest standard of injury management support for injured workers within the sector.

The LGIS Injury Management Guide is an essential tool designed to aid our local government members in the effective application of injury management strategies and processes. Injury management is essentially about effective communication and coordination between claims and rehabilitation practitioners, employers, workers and medical practitioners, to ensure that injured workers are provided all reasonable support and assistance to return to the workplace as safely and quickly as possible.

LGIS has a new pilot program called ‘Early Notification’ starting 1 July 2023. The program will support our members and their workforce with access to early intervention treatment and return to work support for employees who may have injuries inside or outside of work. This is a Scheme funded program to enable our members support their employees as best possible and improve their health and wellbeing outcomes.

Considerations for an employer – transition to work post injury

More than half a million Australians sustain work-related injury or disease annually at an estimated economic cost of $61.8 billion.

Local government employers play a vital role in the return to work and injury management process. An engaged employer supports a worker’s return, affirming the individual’s value and the contribution they make.

As a manager or supervisor, focus on creating a communication channel with the worker, right from the time when they are off work due to an injury to the time they return to work and are trying to settle in.

Getting back to work post an injury can be overwhelming for a worker, therefore, you need to be sensitive and considerate of their requirements. This may include:

  • Assisting them in their fitness for work assessment process.
  • Reducing their workload (especially where a lot of physical activity is involved).
  • Make arrangements for flexible working options.
  • Accommodating them into a lighter or different role as per their abilities.

Read Employers play a vital role in injured workers getting back to work to know more about the process.

For more information on our programs to ensure fitness within your workplace, please get in touch with LGIS WorkCare team at [email protected].

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