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Note: the specifics of the employer's policies and the university's workterm policies are not the subject of this question. They will be followed. As well, the immediate "I'm calling from the hospital I won't be in today I will let you know when I am released" has been done.

A co-op student with three weeks left on a work term has just had an appendectomy (after a rupture) and will be unable to work for a week or two, and then unable to lift anything over ten pounds for a month. The technician job this co-op holds involves lifting equipment many times a day. Assuming the co-op returns and works a week or two before the term ends, what advice would you give about dealing with coworkers, setting limits on lifting things (for example, specific wording for asking others to help lift, or declining a task that might involve lifting), and generally sticking to "modified duties" in a very short term situation? This employer generally expects each co-op to "hand off to" or train the incoming co-op for at least a few days.

If the university offers an opportunity to just stop doing the work and spend the last three weeks of the term recuperating, do you think that's a good idea, or that showing the gumption to go back to work after surgery is a good story to be able to tell later?

  • Any chance the university can suspend the work term until the technician is fully healed and then work the last three weeks? – Brian Apr 13 '15 at 16:35
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    Does the company have any policies on temporary disabilities which are likely relevant? – enderland Apr 13 '15 at 17:14
  • @Brian the next school term starts when the next school term starts - sticking around at the job is not an option – Kate Gregory Apr 13 '15 at 20:59
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As an employer, you have the duty to care for your employees. That's why there are all those fire exits, warning signs and safety regulations. The greatest risk is that the employee may feel the peer pressure to lift stuff although he should not. If a colleague does it, he may feel the need to lend a hand and if there's a beautiful female near by, the words of his doctor may seem very distant. Do not let it come to this. It's your job to make sure he keeps to his doctors advice.

Give him a direct order in front of his colleagues (or maybe in writing by email CC his colleagues) that he is not to lift anything whatsoever. That way it's clear that he is not refusing to lift things because he's a wuss. He refusing to do so, because you ordered him to do so. Your order should not contain relative terms up to interpretation, like "heavy", because that only leads to the same situation: he will be under peer pressure what to judge as "heavy". Your order should be very direct, not open to interpretation and non-negotiable. For example: "Do not lift or carry anything for the next two weeks".

Although this is more work for the rest of the team, a smart team will be happy to know that you are protecting those that need protection. This can happen to anyone.

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    I'm not the employer here. The advice I seek is more for the student than the employer. Your take on this is very good though and useful to people on both sides of it. – Kate Gregory Apr 13 '15 at 21:48
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As someone who has actually had my appendix rupture (and spent a week in hospital for it) and is currently working at a co-op job (although not at the same time), I think they are most likely better to take the time off.

When I had my appendectomy, I spent a week in hospital, lost significant weight and could barley walk. While the student might be better off than I was, I can't imagine that they would be comfortable while working full time hours. Afterwords I was taking strong antibiotics for a week or two and those would just wipe you out, while lifting things would be out of the question, even sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours straight doesn't sound appealing.

Ultimately there are a couple key factors, how do they feel and will both parties take away anything meaningful. Only the student can answer the first question, so emailing them to ask them how they feel and whether they would like to come back to work would answer the first part. Using this information (or going off my experiences) and looking at the job, will the student and the employer benefit from them coming back for a week or so? I don't know they full details of the co-op or of the students condition, so the answer might be yes, but they will have to be the judge.

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I think it makes the most sense for the student to take a medical leave from the co-op position. It sounds like there is a real risk of causing further injury or aggravating the situation if the co-op is put into a position where heavy lifting is necessary, or where there would be pressure (internally motivated or otherwise) to do the job normally. Depending on the situation, the student may be still be able to train a replacement if it's possible to do so without strenuous activity.

This student has the next term to think about, not just this one. He/she would be well advised to rest and recuperate fully while it's possible to do so.

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