Assessing an employee’s return to work

13 April 2015

The absence of an employee can have a huge negative impact on a business; it can reduce productivity and place an increased burden on the remaining workforce. It is therefore in every employer’s best interest to ensure an employee’s return from an absence as soon as possible, in a healthy and safe capacity.

In 2013/2014 28.2 million days were lost due to work-related ill health or injury, which is equivalent to an average of 16 days per case. Although it is appreciated that not all absences from work are attributed to a work related injury or illness, this figure highlights the significance of the issue.

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees, including those that are returning from an absence, be it as a result of a work related incident or not. Controls and procedures that are usually satisfactory in maintaining a safe work place may not be entirely suitable for those returning to work from injury or ill health, e.g. normal controls for manual handling activities may still leave those with injury at risk.

Consequently, additional or alternative arrangements to control the associated risks will be required. In order to identify the requirement for additional controls, a return to work risk assessment should be conducted before an employee resumes any work. Failure to conduct a return to work risk assessment could result in the employer placing the employee, and others, in danger of harm or further harm from injury.

The risk assessment differs from a ‘return to work interview’ as it specifically considers the safety implications associated with the return in a structured process.The risk assessment should consider:

  • The impact of the workplace on the employee’s ability to work without causing harm to themselves or others.
  • The work task list of the individual.
  • If existing controls are sufficient or if additional controls will need to be considered by the employer.

Additional controls, also known as work place adjustments, can be made to working arrangements, e.g. procedures such as changing an employee’s working hours* and allowing employees time off for rehabilitation appointments. Adjustments may also be required to the work environment, e.g. moving work tasks to more accessible areas.

Making adjustments to the job itself can also help an employee return to work safely; these can include the provision of additional training, supervision or even finding alternative work. To ensure a suitable risk assessment is carried out and to establish if the employee is able to return to work safely, it is essential to consider any available advice from the GP or the employee’s other medical professional.

The return to work risk assessment should be recorded to provide documented evidence that the process occurred. Recording the information also provides written instruction to the employee as to any additional arrangements agreed in order to allow them to return safely. The risk assessment should be signed by both the person conducting the risk assessment and also the employee.

Any information in the assessment should be communicated to other relevant persons, e.g. Managers or Supervisors. Any additional controls identified should be allocated to relevant individuals to action and with a date for completion specified to ensure implementation before the employee returns.

With authority to do so from the employee returning to work, it may be beneficial for colleagues to be notified of any workplace adjustment to avoid any misunderstandings amongst the workforce. For example, the provision of additional breaks to aid recovery from manual work or reducing working hours to phase a return to work, if not explained to the workforce, may be viewed as favouritism and result in a negative reception of the employee’s return. Clear communication of any workplace adjustments in accordance with the employees permission, could help assist a successful return to work.

Once the employee returns to work a regular review of the risk assessment and agreed adjustments should occur to ensure they are, and remain, satisfactory or identify if they are no longer required, e.g. due to improved or full recovery of the employee. The employee should also be advised that they have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to update the employer should circumstances change in between set review dates.

Consideration should also be given to the side effects of any medication an employee may have been prescribed and how this could impact on the safety of the employee,e.g. some medication restricts the use of machinery or prohibits driving. The first aid requirements of an employee returning to work may also need to be assessed, as additional provision may be required or, as a minimum, first aiders notified of key information, e.g. symptoms of condition or side effects of medication.

It is not uncommon for employees returning from an injury to be less mobile; this could be due to the requirement to use walking aids, e.g. following a broken foot or leg or restrictions as a result of pain, e.g. muscle/ joint pain. In these types of cases, the return to work risk assessment should consider the adequacy of current emergency arrangements and whether further provision will be required to assist evacuation in the event of an emergency.

If an employer cannot reasonably implement workplace adjustments to ensure the employee can return safely, then any remaining risk may be deemed unacceptable and it may not be safe for the employee to return. In this scenario, the employer should discuss with the employee the reasons why adjustments cannot be reasonably implemented, e.g. no alternative work available. The employee could then be asked to seek further medical advice as it may be appropriate for them to be reassessed.

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