Fitness for Duty Exams

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Florida called the other day to let me know that one of her key field employees injured himself over the weekend and would likely miss multiple workdays.  Her immediate dismay addressed lost productivity, potential impact on customer service, and return-to-work procedures.   During the conversation she stated that the injury was not “serious” (e.g., surgery, FMLA, rehabilitation) and even though it would likely keep the employee off the labor schedule for several weeks, it did not suggest any reference requiring Americans with Disabilities Act protocol (i.e., 4-step interactive process).  

The employee was injured on his personal time, so this incident did not have any direct implications for the Company’s workers’ compensation program.  Likewise, the non-exempt employee had some PTO hours available which would soften the financial blow of being unable to work for at least one bi-weekly pay period.  In keeping with standard procedure, I reminded the business owner that the employee’s supervisor and/or Safety Coordinator should contact the injured employee weekly to touch base, talk about recovery status, and discuss a potential return-to-work date.

At that point, I suggested that the Company apply a workers’ compensation practice to this nonwork-related event.  Per standard operating procedure, the Company mandates that before any injured employee can return to work from a work-related injury, that employee must receive a Fitness-for-Duty exam from the Company’s contracted occupational health facility.  This standard exam (e.g., bending, lifting, kneeling, squatting, standing) is predicated on a Company job description outlining the Essential Functions of a given position, thereby providing a clear frame of reference for the attending physician to evaluate the employee’s physical condition and summarize key findings (e.g., full-release, modified duty, continued treatment) in a formal signed report.

Given that the injured employee’s attending physician works for a hospital, clinic, or office, the physician has a disproportionate perspective, focusing singularly on the employee’s condition, not the Company’s well-being.  By way of contrast, the contracted occupation health facility has a more wholistic awareness of the process, context, and potential impact (e.g., employee, injury, nature of work, environment).  

While appearing cynical, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the employee’s attending physician “could” release the employee to full duty, when in fact, maybe, just maybe, that release might be slightly premature.  Any premature return to work may lead to the employee being reinjured.  On the job.  Now it’s a workers’ compensation claim.  Now the business owner absorbs the cost.

Cynical?  Maybe.  Careful?  Always.

I suggested the Company adopt the common practice of requiring that all injured employees (e.g., on-the-job, personal injuries) receive a Fitness-for-Duty exam from the Company-approved health care facility before being able to return to work.

Better to be safe, than sorry.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.