The challenge of returning injured workers
Finding the right program is key
By Michael J. Moody, MBA, ARM
Regardless of the business sector, workplace injuries and illnesses are extremely costly and are getting more so with each passing day. Over the past 25 or 30 years, employers have begun to take more concrete action to mitigate these injuries and illnesses. In order to do so, employers have had to design and implement a wide variety of loss mitigation strategies. A strong commitment to safety and loss control, and a cultural change regarding worker safety has typically been required. Among other best practice requirements are safer working environments and strong management support.
One of the newer approaches to reducing overall workers compensation costs is an active return-to-work program. Employers have had many allies in trying to find ways of effectively getting injured workers back to the job. Many policy initiatives that are intended to improve return-to-work for injured or disabled employees have been developed by consultants, insurance companies and insurance brokers. In addition, some states offer subsidies to offset the cost to employers who are hiring, and retaining disabled workers.
The primary purpose of a return-to-work program is to implement formal practices, which can be used to reduce the duration of workplace injuries. For the most part, return-to-work programs fall into one of four general categories. These would include modified work requirements such as temporary changes in work tasks or functions, modified workstations and/or modified equipment allowing injured workers to perform their job functions while recovering from an injury, reduced time work schedules and, finally, providing different jobs for individual workers to facilitate the return to the workplace.
First and foremost it should be remembered that a return-to-work program is only one aspect of an overall workers compensation mitigation strategy. There are several other critical aspects that must also be incorporated in order to get maximum value from the return-to-work program.
One of the more popular approaches is to include a return-to-work aspect in an overall coordinated loss management program. In essence, the major components of a loss management program are immediate reporting and investigation of accidents, primary medical care arrangements, return-to-work programs, and regular communications with injured employees. Without the inclusion of all these elements, the return-to-work program will not produce the desired results. In order to improve the outcome of any loss control program, employers should establish relationships with medical providers that are willing take the time to understand their business and work with the employer to facilitate a medically appropriate return-to-work program.
Today, most workers compensation medical providers are willing to take the time to understand the employer's operation and see the various jobs in action. Additionally, most progressive employers will also draft functional job descriptions to provide a doctor or health care professional with detailed information about the physical requirements of each position. The odds of achieving an early and cost-effective return-to-work program go up when the primary care arrangements are in place.
Statistics have shown that the modified work task has been the most commonly used strategy among employers. Offers to return to temporary, alternative work have the biggest potential for cost savings when they are made in time to prevent a medical-only claim from becoming a lost-time claim. This sort of offer requires timely medical information and close coordination with the medical profession. Returning employees to a temporary alternative work setting within a week or two of the injury can greatly decrease the financial losses. Additionally, avoiding lost-time claims entirely by providing immediate accommodations will dramatically help the employer's overall loss experience. As the saying goes, time is money and in the workers compensation system this is certainly true. Not only are there additional costs involved with delays, but a rise in the experience modification factor will cost the employer on a long-term basis.
One of the necessary ingredients in a successful program is a well-written policy that indicates that the modified duty position will be reviewed on a periodic basis by the employer with the flexibility to withdraw the offer if it is not working out. Additionally, the program must have top management support to make certain that it is appropriately implemented. It should be remembered that the intent of any return-to-work program is not to create another class of employee by putting large numbers of employees to work in modified positions. Rather, the intent is to maintain the work connection and the work routine for a limited period of time and then have the employee resume full-time duties as soon as possible.
Roadblocks to successful implementation
At this point, most employers have observed that return-to-work programs can actually reduce their overall workers compensation costs. Return-to-work programs have proven themselves valuable regardless of the industrial setting. However, today there are several issues that are preventing these programs from providing maximum value.
By far the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the recovering economy. The past five or six years have seen significant reductions in overall employment levels. While many organizations believe that the recession is abating to some extent, excess capacity for returning workers is frequently unavailable. This leaves employers in the unenviable position of locating restricted duty work for returning employees.
Statistics bear out the fact that returning an injured employee to the job in a timely fashion can save significant dollars in an overall workers compensation program while allowing injured employees to recover at home can be problematic and costly to employers. With the employment picture being what it is, injured employees are much more likely to not get well quickly or rush back to work. So it is incumbent on the employer to get the employee back to work to avoid the additional costs that could accrue not just from the employee's injury, but from the stress on the worker's family that could result in higher medical costs if they are covered under the group health insurance plan.
Bottom line, it's in both the employer's and the employee's best interest to have healthy employees working in an encouraging environment. However, injuries do occur. When this happens, the employer must assure the employees that they will have a spot on their team once the employee is willing and able to return. And that's where a proactive return-to-work program comes in.
These programs do not need to involve "make work" type positions but rather help the employer to maintain their operation at peak efficiency. Helping an injured employee return to work quickly and safely is the optimal outcome of any return-to-work program. This is true regardless of what state the economy is in.
A successfully managed return-to-work program is typically a cost-effective and proven business strategy that most employers should continue. Getting an injured worker back to work in a timely fashion usually reduces overall workers compensation costs. A long-term absence due to a workers compensation injury can be debilitating to the injured worker as well as the company's bottom line. It can also negatively impact the company's overall morale.