My son seemed so small as he climbed on the bus for his first day of kindergarten. As I watched him excitedly waving through the bus window I thought of how strange it seems to walk away from a 5 year-old, push him into the world and "hope for the best."
How can we rest assured that those responsible for him at school are truly fit for the duty? We assume that the bus driver is fit for duty by having the correct license, is in the right state of mind and is truly trained and qualified to engage in the riskiest activity available - driving. We likewise assume that teachers have the proper fitness for duty by trusting our children in their care. We don't demand to see teaching certificates, driver's licenses or drug test results, we simply assume and trust.
As employers, we don't have that same ability, or at least we shouldn't exercise it. We cannot hire or promote personnel, assume they are fit for duty, and put them in a position to represent us. It is our responsibility to ensure, to the extent possible, that our employees are ready before commencing work.
According to OSHA's definition, fitness-for-duty means that an individual is in a physical, mental and emotional state that enables them to perform the essential tasks of their work assignment in a manner which does not threaten the safety or health of oneself, co-workers, property or the public. Let's use this definition as a guide and look at some options for compliance.
In order to know if an employee is physically for a position, it is necessary to know the applicable physical demands. Written job descriptions are very helpful in this area. Once the demands are known a physical exam can be administered by a medical professional using the job description as a guide. We as employers can set parameters for the test including specific items like climbing ladders, etc. Let's not forget that in most cases an aggravation of a pre-existing condition or former injury becomes a compensable injury for us as well as meeting OSHA's recordability standards. We must stress to employees the importance of not doing more than they are physically able to.
In my opinion a person being mentally fit for duty encompasses two areas: their temporary mental state due to inhibitors such as drugs, alcohol or lack of sleep and the amount of knowledge that a person possesses.
A robust drug screening program consisting of pre-employment, post-accident, random and for-cause drug screening is the most effective method of discouraging the use of illicit substances. A fatigued work policy that places restrictions on the number of consecutive days, hours or some variation is difficult but is an effective way to ensure that work alone is not a cause of an unsafe mental state. Regulatory agencies are increasingly mandating testing, (verification of knowledge), to cover the knowledge portion of being mentally fit for duty. Craft- and company-specific training that begins with new-hire orientation and continues throughout a person's career should be the goal. If we feel that an employee does not yet have the knowledge for a task, they should not be assigned to do it alone.
This one can be harder. I think the only reasonable solution lies in communication. Supervisors, managers, or others should be as present as possible with field employees. We need to ensure that a communication channel is provided and open for those who need it. Workplace violence is a huge issue and many of these episodes come only after repeated signs of emotional distress that went unreported or unnoticed. We should do our best to comply with the requirement of frequent and regular audits but look at more than compliance with standards. Any time we place employees in front of others as a check of potential issues of an emotional type we are ahead of the curve.
Let's do our best to ensure that the employees representing our companies are truly fit for the tasks at hand.
Author: Daniel Erwin, Director of Safety, TNT Crane & Rigging
Source: ACT Magazine, October 2013 Issue