February 2016 Newsletter:

Defining Essential Job Duties

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What is an essential duty?

An employee must be able to perform the essential duties of the position, with or without reasonable accommodation. For any job position, it may be a challenge to objectively differentiate between those duties that are essential and those that are not. The Ontario Human Rights Code defines essential as “that which is needed to make a thing what it is; very important; necessary”. Therefore, any aspect of a job deemed very important and/or necessary is entirely pertinent.

How do we document and why must we know the essential duties?

Often, employers document what is important to a job using basic job descriptions and a list of technical skills or education requirements. However, job descriptions often omit frequencies and durations of the job tasks, and typically lack detailed, objective information on the physical requirements of the jobs, especially when it comes to frequencies and durations. In more recent years, companies have shifted the way they document job demands. They have completed Physical Demands Assessments (PDAs), or Job Demands Assessments (JDAs), both of which objectively quantify and document the physical requirements needed to fulfill the essential duties of a job.

Knowing and understanding the essential duties of a job is primarily important for two reasons:

  1. It may help during the recruitment process, as all relevant questions and testing can be based on these essential duties.
  2. It may help with developing return-to-work (RTW) accommodations for those who require them (e.g. disabled persons, injured persons, etc.).

How do we apply this knowledge?

Let’s look at this from an accommodations perspective. As ergonomists, having the essential job duties objectively defined in a PDA means we are able to identify and develop suitable accommodations during return-to-work (RTW) cases. It can help us to identify specific tasks in a job that may need to be modified to meet the employee’s abilities. Or, it may help to determine that an employee’s pre-disability job is no longer suitable for them (temporarily or permanently) and as such, we can explore other jobs to appropriately match the employee, with or without disability or injury, to a job that is a better match for them.

Examples of accommodations in the workplace may include:

Employers have a responsibility to provide accommodations to their employees when necessary, such that they enable them to be successful at work even with disablement, be it physical or cognitive, permanent or temporary. Bear in mind that application of this knowledge is more of a process than an all-in approach, and should be continually assessed and observed as a job evolves. Whether full accommodations are implemented from the onset or accommodations are phased in over a period of time, having objective and clearly defined essential duties are what make these accommodations possible and defensible.

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