A Really Bad Surprise is Returning to Work After COVID

[fa icon="calendar'] Jun 11, 2020 7:30:29 AM / by Deborah Lechner

A Really Bad Surprise is Returning to Work After COVID

A Really Bad Surprise is Returning to Work After COVID

You’ve had to furlough some folks due to COVID-19. Perhaps they’ve been off work for about 6-8 weeks at this point. You’re bringing them back to work as you ramp up after the crises. That’s good news for everyone, right? Maybe not and here’s why.Let’s say your jobs have moderately heavy physical requirements…maybe lifting 40 lbs. and pushing and pulling 70 lbs. What ErgoScience found with a recent client who was conducting post-COVID Return-to-Work Physical Abilities Testing (also known as Fitness for Duty Testing) for similar jobs, was that 11 out of 50 (22%) employees returning to work after furlough, were not capable of performing the physical requirements of their former jobs! Another 4 of them (11%), had resting blood pressure that was too high to even allow testing! Our client questioned: How could that be??? They were all doing the jobs just 6-8 short weeks ago?

Why are former employees unfit after COVID furlough?

Well, there are two explanations, both of which were at play in this situation:

  • Pre-Furlough Condition. First, it is very likely that they were not physically capable of safely performing the physical requirements of their jobs – even before they were furloughed for COVID-19. Yes, they were technically “doing the job” but for tasks where they didn’t have enough strength, were they getting co-workers to help? Had they figured out some “work-arounds?” Were they putting their bodies at risk by straining to lift, push and pull things they really couldn’t do safely? Were they an injury waiting to happen? If they hadn’t undergone a pre-hire/post-offer Physical Abilities Test, it’s likely that at least around 11% of them shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. And if they did undergo a pre-hire test, how long ago was that? Things could have changed.
    • All had a BMI in either the overweight or obese ranges
    • Some had high resting blood pressure or elevated resting heart rate
    • Most had several medical conditions that included cancer, seizures, arthritis, spinal nerve damage and balance problems, just to mention a few – all in only 5 people!
  • The effect of relative inactivity. Second, it doesn’t take long to get out of shape for a given activity. So even if they were fit enough to do their job before the furlough, disuse muscle atrophy starts as quickly as 72 hours after activities cease. Disuse atrophy is a type of muscle wasting in which the size of the muscle decreases. It happens when a muscle is no longer as active as usual and it slowly become weaker and, eventually begin to shrink in size.
  • Eleven out of the 50 people you bring back and put into the moderately heavy jobs will likely get injured.
  • A lost duty injury, on average, costs about $40K in direct costs, multiplied by the 11 injuries and you’ve quickly spent $440k – just in direct costs alone.
  • The most conservative estimate of the indirect costs associated with an injury is that they are at least double the direct costs! So now you’re up to $880K – nearly a million dollars!
  • If these 11, that don’t have the ability to do their jobs, are re-hired and injured, you’ve quickly evaporated any profitability that was realized by reopening and rehiring.
  • If you had done the most expensive return to work Fitness for Duty test for those 50, it would have cost you well under $10K!

When we examined the demographics and medical history of the 5 who failed the test, the findings were fairly shocking:

And sadly, that’s not unusual in our American society at large. We’re a sick, out of shape bunch of folks.

Disuse atrophy can be caused if a person stops performing their usual activities - like ​working. Lack of using a muscle often results in the body's breakdown. It no longer wants to exert the energy to move and expand. Therefore, the muscle decreases in size as well as in strength.

Older employees or folks suffering from arthritis are particularly at risk for developing disuse atrophy. They may lose strength at twice the rate of younger workers.

Significant strength is lost after 3-4 weeks. Most returning furloughed workers due to COVID-19 are coming off at least a 6-week absence from work – essentially double the duration in which significant strength loss would have occurred.

Endurance losses occur even more quickly than losses in strength – with 4-25% of endurance lost after 3-4 weeks of inactivity.

The really bad surprise – the cost of not testing. So, let’s say you bring everyone back without doing any Return-to-Work/Fitness for Duty testing, which is tempting…you’ve been told to ramp up quickly and you don’t really have a budget for testing. Let’s also say that your jobs and your workforce is similar to the employer that we described above.

Unless your math is different than mine, if you don’t test your re-hires, the numbers just don’t work out.

Return-to Work Fitness for Duty Testing Can Help.

These numbers aren’t fiction. They’re facts. Our client saved over $880K in potential injury costs just by doing a few thousand dollars of Return-to-Work Physical Abilities (Fitness for Duty) Testing. Those who fail their tests can be placed in light-duty positions or sent for work conditioning or both. Either option will be far less costly than an $80K injury!

Don’t be taken by a bad surprise, precisely when you don’t need one. Contact us today to get started with your Return-to-Work Fitness for Duty testing.

Are you interested in learning more about pre-hire physical abilities testing?

Download Physical Abilities Testing EBook





Topics: Workplace Safety, wellness in the workplace, Physical Abilities Tests, pre-hire testing

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.