The Better Way to Get Injured Workers to Return to Work

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The most compelling arguments in favor of a well-considered return-to-work program can often be found in either of two places:

  • The financial and emotional wreckage that can befall a worker discarded by their employer after being hurt on the job;
  • an analysis of thousands of dispassionate claims statistics.

We prefer the latter. One such analysis, released this past summer, looked at 26,000 workers’ compensation claims over 10 years and found that the newest employees are often the ones more commonly injured.

In fact, a third of claims paid out over that 10-year span involved first-year employees in the construction industry.

(It makes you wonder how many of those workers decided construction wasn’t the career for them, at a time when the industry is starved for workers, but we digress.)

A return-to-work program allows injured employees to reintegrate into the workplace while they are recovering.

States with warmer climates accounted for the most losses, partly because contractors in those states are able to work year-round. To wit:

  • Arizona claims frequencies are 42% above the U.S. average.
  • Florida claims frequencies are 34% above average.
  • California claims frequencies are 7% above average.

A few other key findings stood out:

  • On average, an injured construction worker filing a claim is out for 13 days of work.
  • Lost days attributable to falls or slips are 67% greater than the median for all injuries, stretching to as many 34 days.

Even without considering the current labor shortage, all of the above clearly suggests that, after doing more safety training, getting your company’s Return-to-Work program in shape should be a top priority.

Simply stated, a return-to-work program allows employees who take leave from work after an injury or because of an illness to adjust back into the workplace while they are recovering.

Your return-to-work process needs to be explicit, with a clear outline of expectations and responsibilities for both the employer and employee.

It should also include a process for determining the necessary accommodations someone will need to return to work based on the clear requirements and essential functions of the job to which they are returning.

Improvising the above is asking for trouble.

Returning to Work on a Modified Track

One of the best ways to accommodate an injured employee and help them recover while keeping your claim costs down is to offer them modified work tasks.

Modified duty is a temporary situation that occurs when an injured worker can perform some, but not all, of their regular job tasks.

It may include modifying their essential or nonessential tasks, changing work conditions or physically modifying the work place.

Other accommodations to consider include flexible work hours, rest areas, and telecommuting.

Here’s what else you’ll need to think about to make sure yours is a solid return-to-work program:

  • Consider assigning a return-to-work coordinator to facilitate communication between you, the employee, medical providers, workers’ compensation and disability insurers, and others.
  • Letters and forms to document actions taken to facilitate a return to work.
  • Tools to track absences.
  • A liaison authorized to communicate between company managers and medical providers. (That coordinator would be a good option for this task.)
  • A system for identifying alternative jobs and modified duties.
  • Training for supervisors and co-workers.

If you’re worried about the expense of doing all that, the Job Accommodation Network has estimated over 50 percent of accommodations do not cost employers a dime. When there is a cost, it’s on average $600. Now compare that to the expense of identifying, hiring and training someone new.

A couple more important notes in all this:

While there are disability guidelines that offer projections on how long it typically takes for an injured worker to return to work, there’s no exact science or formula for this. This is, in the end, a question best left to the treating physician and the injured worker.

Of course, an employee can be relieved of duty entirely if they’re unable to perform the job. But be careful here. There are a number of thresholds that employers must cross before taking that route.

Lastly, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, it is illegal for the employee’s direct supervisor to contact the physician to double-check anything the employee tells you. Only your HR representative or, again, a leave administrator is allowed to do that.

Also read: Drop Expected in Arizona Workers’ Compensation Premiums

The Mahoney Group, based in Mesa, Ariz., is one of the largest independent insurance and employee benefits brokerages in the nation. For more information about workers’ compensation insurance, contact us online or call 480-730-4920.

This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice.

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