Functional assessments to reduce injury

Konekt Business Development Manager Suzanne Smith explains the benefits of Functional assessments to reduce injury incidence.

Employees are a company’s greatest asset and one that is worth getting right.

However, how do employers ensure that recruits are going to be assets rather than liabilities?

The costs of getting it wrong can be substantial when employers take into account the time spent recruiting, hiring and training.

Managers can also add to that the costs of lost productivity, or workers compensation claims due to injuries if they happen.

Pre-employment screening improves the chances of hiring suitable employees and is vital for effective risk management. However, while medical screening is standard in the mining industry, it is a subjective procedure that cannot predict whether a potential employee has the ability to perform a specific job role. Pre-employment functional assessments are an adjunct to medical screening that provides an objective measure of a person’s ability to physically do the job.

Functional assessment

A functional assessment, or functional capacity testing as it is also known, is based on a task analysis that examines the critical physical demands of a specific role.

It is this specific testing that is the key to a useful assessment.

For example, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost a third of workplace injuries in 2005-06 were sprains or strains. However, the cause of strains is usually due to cumulative factors such as strength, endurance and mobility.

Simple strength testing alone will not predict work injury incidence.

Tests should be job-specific and carried out under the supervision of an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist and may include lifting and carrying at varying weights and ranges, simulated static and dynamic postures, and movements such as climbing ladders or stooping and kneeling.

These measures are in addition to baseline physical data such as muscle strength, range of movement, cardiovascular health, aerobic capacity, hearing and drug and alcohol tests.

Test results enable employers to select suitable workers and minimise the risk of health related injuries during employment.

Studies show dramatically reduced incidence of injuries in workers who demonstrate the physical capabilities to perform required job functions compared to those who do not.

Aditya Birla Minerals has functional assessments carried out on all employees prior to employment at its Nifty and Mount Gordon copper operations.

“We work in a very harsh environment and people need to be fit and healthy,” Occupational Health and Safety Manager Brendon Vagg said.

“It helps to make sure we get the right assessment done prior to people coming onto site.

“We make sure that the employees we’re hiring are physically fit, strong and able to do the tasks that we’re employing them for.”

Return-to-work costs

Functional assessments are useful beyond pre-employment screening and play an important role throughout an employee’s lifecycle.

Aditya Birla Minerals also uses the assessments in its injury management program to determine when injured employees are fit enough to come back into a role.

Studies have shown that the return-to-work costs are significantly less in injured workers who have passed screening compared to those who have never been screened.

Repeating assessments at regular intervals is also important.

While a job may stay constant, employee abilities and health, such as aerobic capacity and physical capabilities, change with age.

Functional assessments provide flexibility; if a person’s abilities change, or they have a prior injury, a role can be modified or they can be employed in another role.

Vagg says the functional assessment program will result in reduced insurance premiums.

“The insurance company is well aware of what we’re doing and has been involved in the process so they can see that we’re being proactive in managing employees and reducing risk on site.”

A functional assessment may also help protect employers from being sued because they have failed to accurately measure a person’s ability to do a job.

Under Disability Discrimination Legislation, a company has to be able to demonstrate that a person, who is turned down for employment, can not carry out the actual requirements of the job after reasonable adjustment has been made.

In this context, the requirements are not just what are described in the job advert or the job description; they are what the job actually constitutes.

The bottom line

As the global financial crisis deepens, cost control is becoming more crucial than ever.

It is important to carefully examine pre-employment programs and determine if they are delivering value for money.

A provider with a network of offices and health professionals will be able to provide coordinated services and manage the screening program activities such as bookings and results.

While a pre-employment functional assessment is an additional cost, it is very low compared to the potential costs of putting people into jobs they cannot safely perform.

In addition to reduced injuries and improved return-to-work timelines, functional assessment can lead to improved productivity, a reduction in worker’s compensation premiums and, most important of all, a safer workplace.

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