The importance of physical employment standards

The importance of physical employment standards

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The consequences of employing physically unfit individuals for physically demanding occupations can be costly, both in human and economic terms.  For this reason, it is critical that all employees working in safety sensitive job environments are physically capable of meeting the minimum physical demands of their respective occupation. 

Depending on the industry, companies are often responsible for the safety of their employees.  As such, Canadian employers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of empirically measured physical job demands.  By taking into account the physical requirements of an occupation through the evidence-based development of defendable Physical Employment Standards (PES), employers can reduce the risk of workplace incidents and fatalities.  Once established, a PES can ensure that workers are able to undertake the critical/essential tasks at an agreed upon and acceptable minimum standard of performance. 

Similarly, a PES demonstrates a “duty of care” on the part of the employer by mitigating the risk of injury at work and facilitating a hiring and recruitment method that is fair and unbiased based on minimum essential ability.  This type of physical appraisal of PES is most often utilized in “Pre-Employment” or “Return-to-Work” situations where the ability of an individual is being evaluated by an employer.  In practice, a PES acts as a simulation for incumbents already possessing the skills required for the critical/essential tasks or a predictive “fitness” test for applicants to determine if they have the baseline physical capability to meet the critical/essential minimum job demands.  It is important to note that a PES should not be confused with an Employment Medical.  

PES assessments have, over recent years’, been developed for many occupations in many industries.  However, the majority of employers do not realize that most employment standards developed to date are in fact not legally defendable.  This means that in a situation where an existing employee fails to meet these standards (i.e. following employee injury or workplace incident), no legal action based on the employment standards can be taken by the employer.  Canadian anti-discrimination legislation stresses that for a PES to be legally defendable it must be scientifically valid to prevent unfair employment-related discrimination.  Therefore, only if it is based on a defendable PES can and employer execute any refusal, exclusion, expulsion, suspension, limitation, specification or preference.  

Unfortunately, it is all too common for employment standards to be developed from pre-existing standards or information obtained by poorly performed Job Demands Analysis’.  As a result, the majority of these physical occupational demand evaluations are not adequate to be used in the development of a defendable PES.  This fact is extremely discouraging, especially as the methodology to develop a defendable PES has for some time been well established in the literature and outline by the Canadian Government. 

With the legalization of marijuana in Canada this year, many employers are rightfully concerned about the effects these changes will have on workplace safety and productivity.  There are a number of physical attributes that can be affected by marijuana, significantly diminishing performance.  However, despite the fact that the detection of marijuana is quickly become more accurate and reliable, the measurement of physical impairment from marijuana is still very much ill defined.  Thus, in a case where the consumption of marijuana results in a workplace incident, defendable PES may be the employer’s only means of defense.  

The “Safety Sensitive Work Environment Defense” has not, and will not, be effective enough to support a zero (to near zero) tolerance position for marijuana. It does not support a measure of due diligence to prove that the impact on physical performance overlaps with the demands of the occupation.  Therefore, the accurate measurements of the critical/essential physical demands of high-risk occupations will be critical in determining whether, and to what degree, marijuana may have a detrimental impact.  It is the responsibility of the employer to maintain the safety of the work environment. Regarding marijuana, employers must be able to prove that being free of its influence is a bona fide occupational requirement. In the simplest of terms, a defendable PES will provide employers with a baseline defense against impairment in the workplace.  

In conclusion, by utilizing a defendable PES, employers can significantly reduce health benefit costs and musculoskeletal injuries while simultaneously increasing work productivity and workplace safety standards.  The specific evaluation of physical fitness for an occupation through a PES provides a prediction of capability for safe employment, feedback on recovery/rehabilitation, eligibility for a safe return to work, and it encourages continued physical fitness and healthy lifestyle choices amongst employees. 

Dr. Farrell Cahill, PhD

Lead Researcher, Horizon Occupational Health Solutions