Job rotation can enrich work, as well as reduce stress and repeat injuries, but it comes with risks for employers.
Job-rotation practices have come into vogue recently as employers seek to not only reduce repetitive injury costs, but also enrich the work experience and increase productivity. While generally favorable experiences have been reported, employers should understand certain pitfalls to guard against before undertaking any such program.
Boston-based workers' compensation expert Jon Coppelman says garment-industry employers have long cross-trained workers to alleviate the tedium and concomitant injury risk that day-long concentration on one task brings. Employers have also found other advantages.
"The somewhat hidden benefit in this was that, when the workload increased in one area, or when someone went out sick, they had people who were cross-trained on a variety of machines so they were not short-staffed in one particular area," he says.
"I don't see any downside to people having a wider skill set, other than perhaps increased training costs," he says, adding he knows of no injury data related to job-rotation programs.
Cross-training could also provide greater flexibility for employers dealing with modified-duty requirements for injured employees transitioning back to the workplace, he adds.
Redondo Beach, Calif.-based work site consultant Gerry Ledford concurs.
Job-rotation programs offer injury-reducing value, he says. "But you have to balance that, at least when people are learning new skills, that if they are not well-trained you might have more exposure to injury."
Ledford says he doubts any employee could be trained to do more than 10 jobs effectively.
Different jobs with different pay levels remain a challenge for such rotation programs.
Ledford says there are several formulas that could be used to reward employees for expanding their skills, such as increasing base pay or setting up bonuses.
But he knows of no company that has set up a system for employees being paid different rates for different jobs during a given day.
"Probably the biggest concern from a labor-relations aspect are those entry-level jobs that more experienced workers do not want to go back to," he says.
In a white-collar environment, insurance companies will often rotate customer-service representatives dealing with stressed-out callers with back-office workers for part of the day so that each may enjoy some relief from the challenges of the different positions.
"It is not a bad idea for people who do just the data work to get exposed to what the real issues are from customers," he says.
But there will be always be those workers not cut out for both situations, and any well-designed program will take this into account, Ledford adds.
Philadelphia-based employment attorney Sarah Kelly says most workers in today's economy will appreciate the value of cross-training for the increased job security it could entail.
However, she notes, that in unionized environments, employers must always be aware of collective-bargaining agreement clauses that could impede any job rotation.
Another complication, she says, is overtime. Employers would be wise to avoid putting job rotators in those situations because of the difficulties in determining the pay scale for the overtime work.