What must be done to improve return to work

A labour point of view on disability management

Imagine what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with tears in your eyes from the pain in your wrists. You need the paycheque and don’t want to miss work. So you summon up the courage the next day to phone your supervisor, telling her you won’t be going into work, and that you’re seeing a doctor.

Your physician thinks it’s carpal tunnel syndrome and sends you to a surgeon who confirms the diagnosis. You qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, surgery corrects the problem and you’re able to return to work.

When you do return, if you’re lucky, you’ll be supported by your supervisor and your co-workers. Your job will be changed so the repetitive, awkward, difficult task you did before is altered to make it much less repetitive, more comfortable and require much less force to perform.

But the reality for many Canadian workers, however, is that they aren’t that lucky. Instead, supervisors question whether there ever really was a problem in the first place. Co-workers are skeptical, too, especially if they have to help out the returning worker by carrying more of the workload themselves, putting themselves at increased risk. There may be sidelong glances or whispers in the washroom: “Is she faking it?”

And in far too many cases, nothing has changed with the job itself. Nothing has been altered to protect the worker from re-injury. The best the injured worker can hope for in most workplaces is a graduated return to work with four hours per shift for the first week or two, six hours for the next week or two and an eight-hour shift beyond that.

The cycle of re-injury continues and as soon as the workers’ compensation obligations for return to work (a year or two from date of injury) are finished, the employer terminates the worker.

So what can be done about these invisible injuries? What can be done to ensure that workers with all disabilities, temporary or permanent, visible or invisible, are able to successfully return to work? Compassion is important, but alone it is insufficient. There must be organized structures to ensure injured workers receive the supportive work environment they need, both emotionally and physically, when they return to work.

Joint union-management disability committees are doing just that at CP Rail where members of the Canadian Auto Workers’ Local 101 across Canada are protected through the disability provisions in their collective agreement and the disability and accommodation policies developed from it.

The committees put the emphasis on modifying the job to accommodate the person with disability. By applying basic principles of ergonomics, the committees ensure the tools, work station or workplace is changed to suit the needs of the disabled worker. These changes help to protect other workers from injury as well as the disabled worker from re-injury.

The committees recognize that disabilities are by their nature individual problems and thus require individual solutions. The committees don’t discriminate against workers who have been hurt away from work — they help them too. The union is fully involved in the process throughout, to ensure the needs of the injured worker are always the first priority. There is no arbitrary period of time for an accommodation. It may be a few weeks or it may be forever. The committees emphasize that the purpose of a return-to-work program is to help the worker get better. But they acknowledge that not everyone will, and thus they ensure permanent disabilities are accommodated as well.

Joint health and safety committees are required by law in Canada. Why aren’t joint disability committees required by law, or the duties of the joint health and safety committee expanded to provide help to disabled workers to return to work? And why aren’t there ergonomics regulations in effect in all jurisdictions in Canada to ensure workplaces are modified to assist workers return to work? Isn’t it time to seriously address these issues?

Cathy Walker is director, of the Canadian Auto Workers’ Health and Safety Department. She can be contacted at (416) 495-3789 or [email protected].

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