Fit for Duty Systems

Fit for Duty Systems

By Chelsey Tannahill on July 10, 2023


Worker fitness for duty continues to be a major challenge for most Canadian employers today. 

Though the scope of work for safety and HR professionals can be very broad, considerable time, energy, and money is often spent dealing specifically with fit-for-duty concerns. As reported by many of our clients in the Alberta construction industry, the top 5 most prevalent concerns of 2021 center around COVID-19, cannabis use, positive test and return to duty situations, worker injuries and navigating WCB, and a rising number of workers with mental health concerns.  

For many companies, dealing with these fit-for-duty concerns is exhausting and downright painful. Not invoking the right balance of safety, human rights, worker support, consequences,  and financial considerations can result in legal action, labor shortages, and massive financial strain. However, upon examination of the root cause of these alarming outcomes, it is 

apparent that the real issue is not cannabis, or COVID-19, or mental health concerns. The real problem, the thing that is really putting companies at risk, is the Fit for Duty program itself.  

Typical Fit for Duty programs consists of a policy, testing regime, training program (sometimes), and a worker support program (less often). These components usually operate independently and are regularly managed by different departments. Though it is widely accepted today that an integrated “systems-based” approach to health and safety is far superior and vastly more effective than a segmented “program” approach, this has concerningly not yet been applied to fitness for duty. Fit for Duty “programs” are destined to fail. In contrast with systems, programs are simply collectives of parts that lack the coordination needed to successfully and easily navigate complex fit-for-duty challenges.  

Leading companies today are leveraging their former Fit for Duty programs in the development of highly interdependent and coordinated Fit for Duty systems, characterized by  6 definitive traits:  

  1. Central Purpose / Objective: Fit for Duty systems focus on a clearly defined and documented objective or desired result - to ensure that workers are free from impairment and are physically and psychologically capable of working safely. Achieving this objective dramatically reduces the likelihood of injury or fatality, protects the employer’s ability to meet their job demands and contractual obligations, and diminishes the high costs associated with negative fit-for-duty outcomes. Ultimately, ensuring that a workforce is operating in a “fit” state ensures a company’s profitability and long-term financial prosperity. 
  2. Organization: The Fit for Duty system has a structure and order that helps to achieve the objective.  
  3. Interaction / Interdependence: Each component of the system functions with and depends on the others. The system is designed to operate in a consistent feedback loop – each part of the system reinforces and supports the other. For example, as the effectiveness of the policy in large part hinges on the understanding of the workforce, a key component of Fit for Duty systems is a comprehensive training program that is based on the specifics of the policy and is adapted to each level within the company (ownership/management,  supervisors, workers).
  4. Integration: The Fit for Duty system is integrated into the whole company, fitting seamlessly into other organizational systems. Fit for Duty training and testing is unified with HR processes (interviews, onboarding, orientation, performance reviews, etc.),  purchasing and contract management coordinates with the testing regime, and so on.
  5. Repeatable: Fit for Duty systems run the same no matter who is involved. This means having clearly documented processes, along with support documents and resources, that are easy to understand and accessible to anyone who might need them.
  6. Adaptable – Things change! Legislation and industry standards evolve, and company personnel and processes change. Fit for Duty systems involve a mechanism to periodically assess the strength and response of the system and to make adjustments necessary to close any newly emerging gaps.  

This deep-rooted interaction and connectivity ensure that the system functions no matter what and that the objective is met no matter who is involved or how simple or complex the  Fit for Duty issue is.