Getting Workers Safely Back to Work in the COVID Era

Supporting workers from the start demonstrates your commitment to their success and makes good business sense.

COVID-19 has made the already difficult job of safety professionals even more difficult. To further complicate things, many organizations have scaled back hours or temporarily ceased production. Others in high-demand industries have had to hire and get people to the floor fast. These changes have created additional—but often overlooked—challenges for safety professionals in their fight against COVID-19.

The financial impact of slowdowns on organizations resulting from the COVID-19 disruption may be significant. Adding a wave of workers’ compensation claims will only make an already difficult situation worse. Innovative organizations are using physical therapists to help integrate physical readiness steps into their COVID-19 response to reduce injury risk to furloughed, post-COVID and new employees.

Furloughed Workers

A furloughed worker may assume a relatively sedentary lifestyle and quickly become deconditioned, thus increasing their chances of injury when they do return to work.

Offering furloughed workers suggestions for a basic fitness program can be a way to keep employees engaged as part of the company. Participation with this program may be hit or miss, but any involvement puts employers ahead of the game. The following guidelines are common among successful fitness programs:

• Home-based, involving little to no equipment

• Simple and easy to follow

• Convenient and brief

• Perceived as valuable to the employee

Workers who are required to manually lift, carry, push and pull need the endurance to stand and walk for the duration of their work shift. Maintaining endurance is relatively simple. Workers who return to jobs where they will be on their feet all day should try to stand and walk for at least two hours per day to maintain tolerance.

Muscular strength is a critical fitness category to address. Simply put, if you don’t use it, you lose it. That being said, very few employees are likely to spend hours in their homes doing exercises. Doing a few exercises three to five times a week to address core strength should help.

A good example of this would be large manufacturer using their onsite physical therapist to check in with returning employees to see how they are doing. He reviews proper lifting techniques and body mechanics, then suggests some basic stretches with them on the first day. He then follows up with them the next week to see if they have any difficulties that need to be addressed.

Helping Post-COVID Employees Return to Work

It is too soon to know the full impact of COVID-19 on workers after their recovery from the virus. It is known, however, that these workers may have unique issues and needs related to their illness. The following strategies can help:

Fitness for Duty Testing. This test makes sure the worker possesses the physical ability to perform the essential functions of their job and can identify any work restrictions or effective transitional work plans.

Transitional Work Opportunities. It can help to prepare a set of safe transitional work duty tasks for individuals working at a less-than-optimal capacity.

Job Coaching Worksite Check-ins. With a prepared list, an onsite therapist will check in with workers who have recently returned to work with no documented restrictions. This proactive outreach shows employees you care and is part of an effective early intervention program.

Coordinate return-to-work planning with a healthcare team. For the most complex cases, a plan that includes the employee’s entire healthcare team will have the greatest chance of success.

Helping Workers Return To Their Jobs

Workers returning to full duty after prolonged absence require extra diligence to address at-risk behaviors. Employers commonly have ongoing programs designed to address body mechanics, ergonomics and other aspects of safety and safe worker behavior. However, workers that have been away for a while may quickly adopt physically unsound work practices.

Several tools and techniques will help mitigate this risk:

• Use short pre-shift safety reminders, such as four to six common precautions that are reinforced repetitively.

• Set up pre-shift warm up routines.

• Build a short (about three to five minutes) mini-break into every hour for a week or two to allow a more gradual progression into full production.

• Try modified frequency of job or task rotation. If job rotation or task rotation is part of a job, increasing the frequency of the rotation upon returning to work may distribute the workload among different muscle groups.

• Respond promptly to worker complaints of discomfort before an injury occurs.

For example, an Alabama paper manufacturer uses her onsite physical therapist to meet with each post-COVID worker. She reviews handouts on hydration and nutrition, and then reviews a circuit training program with them. They return to her two more times, and each time, she adds another circuit to their routine to help them build back their strength and endurance.

Preparing New Hires or Workers in New Roles

It is not uncommon for workers starting new, more physically demanding jobs to experience periods of general soreness as their body adapts to the new activity level. Supporting new workers from the start of the employment process can go a long way in helping equip them for success in their new job roles. There are several strategies that can be implemented during this stage to help reduce the risk of injury for these new workers:

Use Post Offer Employment Testing. Make sure the job candidates possess the physical ability to perform the job they are being hired to do.

Provide a detailed safety orientation. Reviewing safe work practices, safety rules and policies are all important aspects of promoting safety culture and reducing risk of injury due to unsafe work practices.

Encourage physical activity and preparation for an increase in activity. If the new job will involve a lot of standing and walking, provide the new worker with educational information about implementing a walking program to build tolerance prior to (or at the beginning of) employment.

Allow time for adaptation to increased physical demands. When possible, allow a gradual increase in exposure to the high physical demands over the course of the first two to three weeks of employment.

Job conditioning movement routines. If the job’s physical demands are clearly understood and documented, consider developing job-specific movement routines that can be given to all new and existing workers in a specific job or department.

Supporting workers from the start demonstrates your commitment to their success and makes good business sense.

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