Seminar Presentation 8-3

8-3 (Presentation within Topical Seminar 8):
Supervisors' perspectives on accommodating back injured workers: A grounded theory study

Presented by: Kelly Williams-Whitt

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Williams-Whitt K1, Kristman VL2,3,4,5, Shaw WS6, Soklaridis S7, Loisel P5

  1. University of Lethbridge, Calgary, Canada
  2. Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada
  3. Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Thunder Bay, Canada
  4. Institute for Work & Health, Toronto, Canada
  5. Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
  6. Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Hopkinton, United States
  7. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Canada



Supervisors are important gatekeepers and facilitators of job modifications. However, little is known about the factors that shape a supervisor’s decision when accommodating an injured worker. Supervisors may be influenced by factors such as their beliefs about pain, the nature of the job, organizational policies and procedures, operational issues, or the pre-existing supervisor/worker relationship. The objective of this study is to understand the decision-making process used by supervisors when implementing workplace accommodation for workers with back pain.


Grounded theory methods of data collection and analysis were used. Interviews with 23 supervisors were conducted from 11 organizations, both public and private sector. Supervisors were interviewed using a semi-structured interview protocol. Interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. They were recorded, transcribed and entered into NVivo software. Researchers analyzed five cases, seeking recurring themes, categories and relationships among them. A detailed coding guide was developed and used to code the remaining cases. Relationships between categories and themes were analyzed in order to develop an explanatory model.


Preliminary results indicate that the most important factor considered by the supervisor is job demand-employee ability fit. Information to make this determination is provided by the employee’s physician, the occupational health and safety department, human resources and/or the back-injured employee. Accurate information regarding limitations and restrictions is particularly important, but not always available. Supervisors rely on their own knowledge of job demands to determine whether modification to fit the employee’s abilities is possible. Additional categories emerging in the data include: trust, experimentation, beliefs about responsibility, coworker management, productivity, and accommodation costs.


Most managers feel their discretion with respect to accommodating back-injured workers is considerably curtailed by legal requirements and organizational policies. They perceive their role to be important but not independent. Understanding the level of discretion they exercise and how they exercise it can help shape programs aimed at reducing disability absence through supervisor training.