Rehabilitation - Return to Work

Return to Work - Suitable Alternative Duties

A major focus of the WorkCover system is to ensure that injured workers return to work as soon as possible.  On the WorkCover Certificate of Capacity there are a range of possible capacities to work, they are:

  • Unfit for any duties;
  • Fit for alternative duties;
  • Fit for modified duties; or
  • Expected to be fit for normal duties.

It is not helpful if your practitioner is not specific about what you can and cannot do e.g. if they write “light duties” and no more. Make sure that your doctor puts details about what kinds of limitations should be placed, e.g. no lifting more than 10kg, no twisting, no bending, no repetitive use of right arm (whatever is appropriate).

If your doctor provides a WorkCover Certificate that states that you are able to return to work on 'alternate duties' or 'modified duties' your employer has to find appropriate duties and make you a Return to Work Job Offer of ‘suitable alternate duties’. When you are ‘expected to be fit for normal duties’ you should be able to return to your pre injury duties. If your employer refuses to let you back to work (at all or until you can do all of your pre-injury duties) let us know. The Accident Compensation Act says that the employer must provide suitable alternative duties or return you to your pre injury employment or equivalent (if you are fit to do it) for the first 52 weeks (in which you have certificates) after they have agreed to pay for your injury.

For a successful return to work, it is best if the proposed Return to Work Plan and the job offer of Suitable Alternative Employment are worked through with you right from the beginning. The Return to Work Plan must be prepared if you are off work for 20 days. Note: a ‘plan’ is looking into the future and may or may not contain Return to Work Job Offer, depending on your condition (if you are still in hospital it would not make sense to draw up duties). In any discussions with management about your return to work you have the right to be accompanied by your elected health and safety representative (HSR).

You should be given the Return to Work Offer at least one week before it is proposed that you should return to work. If you are offered alternate or modified duties (a Return to Work Offer) at work, the offer should be in writing and you should take it to your doctor/health practitioner to discuss the duties. Your doctor should be able to go to the workplace and to look at how it works in order to see whether the duties are appropriate.

If your doctor/health practitioner thinks that there should be changes in the Return to Work Offer get him/her to put this in writing. Any changes will need to be negotiated. In any discussion/negotiations with management (this could be the Return to Work Officer and/or your Supervisor or Manager) you have the right to have your delegate or health and safety representative with you. Do not go alone.

Whilst the law only specifies that you must be given the written offer if you are off work for 20 days, it is more sensible to have the duties in writing from the moment that you need any alternative duties, even if you are only off work for a couple of days (or even not off work at all) and are on ‘light duties’.

As soon as the injury is reported there should be an investigation of the duties that contributed to the injury. Your elected Health and Safety Representative should be involved in the investigation. You should be asked your opinion about the duties that you were doing. Changes should be made so that nobody else is injured and so that you can return to your pre injury employment as soon as you are fit to do so.

You cannot refuse duties simply because you do not like them or because you are not fit for your pre-injury duties. For example, you were a boner before your injury, you have a shoulder injury and you cannot lift your arm above your shoulder; the duties that have been offered start with assembling boxes and move on to labouring then slicing and eventually returning to boning (after changes to the workplace so that you are able to bone the quarters directly in front of you). If, after visiting the workplace with you present, your doctor considered this to be totally suitable, you refused to try the “suitable alternative duties” you could be cut off weekly payments. A Return to Work Offer should be reviewed regularly to see that it is working and so that your duties are returning to duties that are as close as possible to pre injury duties.

Occupational Rehabilitation Providers (ORP) might be involved in your return to work. If you, your treating doctor, or your employer think that occupational rehabilitation services are needed to make sure that you can return to work safely, a request for the services should be put in writing to the Claims Agent.

You should check with your delegates/health and safety representatives to see whether a Rehabilitation Policy has been negotiated in your workplace. A Rehabilitation Policy is supposed to be developed in consultation with workers, not just imposed by management. If such a policy has been developed, there should be recommended Occupational Rehabilitation Providers named in the policy. This can be helpful to choose an ORP.

Occupational rehabilitation services include:

  1. Assessment of what you may need to return to work;
  2. Analysis of the work, the workplace and what modification could be made to the work so that you could return to work;
  3. Assessment of what you can do, physically eg how long can you stand, sit, walk etc;
  4. Work conditioning, that is are there activities that simulate work to improve your physical capacity, stamina and endurance;
  5. Counselling aimed to provide you with advice and encouragement to adjust to having been injured;
  6. Functional education to provide information specific to the return to work tasks;
  7. Vocational Assessment if the injury is such that you will not be able to return to your pre injury occupation;
  8. Assistance in obtaining appropriate re-training if you will never be able to return to your occupation;
  9. Assistance to seek new employment if it is impossible to return to your pre-injury workplace.

Sometimes the Claims Agent initiates the use of an Occupational Rehabilitation Provider. Usually they phone you and tell you that they are going to send you to a Rehabilitation Provider to help you get to work, and that you can choose one of three Providers. Then they give the name of three companies and ask you to choose, sometimes they recommend one of the three companies. You do not have to answer straight away. It is better if you if you ask them to send you the list in writing. You have two weeks to give them your answer. During this time you can check out the different ORPs. If you don’t notify the Claims Agent of your choice within 14 days they can chose the ORP.

You should check out the Occupational Rehabilitation Providers and make your own choice. You can phone the ORPs and ask a number of questions such as:

  1. What can you do to assist me?
  2. Do you have an office close to (give the area that you live in) or would you come and meet me close to home rather than me having to travel to your offices?
  3. What experience do your group have in dealing with workplaces in the meat industry? Name what you work in e.g. abattoirs, boning rooms, smallgoods manufacturing, butcher shops or rendering plants.
  4. How much experience do your group have in dealing with my injury?
  5. Do you know my employer?
  6. Have you been to my workplace or other workplaces in the meat industry? If they have been in meatworks, which ones?
  7. Who pays your bills?
  8. Are you happy to talk to my Union Representative or have my Union Representative along in any workplace inspection?
  9. Are you willing to have me present in all discussions with my treating doctors?

You may check with your Delegates, Health and Safety Reps or Organiser to see whether they have any recommendations about Rehabilitation Providers. You can also talk to your doctor/treating practitioner about which of the ORPs they recommend. Once you have chosen the ORP, tell the Claims Agent. Remember you have only 14 days to give them your choice. Then work together with the ORP to prepare your future.

If there is no chance of you returning to your pre injury employment and you need training to learn something new, you need to think through your future and make suggestions about what you would like. WorkCover is not likely to pay for you to go off to university and study law or medicine (or anything like that) but they could look at something like forklift licenses, computer use or health and safety. It is important that the training is not just to get a piece of paper for a job that you could not really do. For example, if you can not turn your head or lift any more than 2 kg there is not much to be gained by getting a forklift license because you would not be able to work as a forklift driver; or if you had a criminal record there would not be much point in training as a security guard.

If you request reasonable retraining with the support of your treaters (doctors or physiotherapists etc) and it is refused, you can appeal the decision. The Union can help you to take things like that to conciliation.