Return to Work Program: How to Get Injured Workers Back on the Job

August 2, 2019 • Missouri Employers Mutual

As an employer, one of your most important assets are the people that make your work possible: your employees. When an incident happens on the job, it can be challenging to see an employee sidelined by an injury. Planning to get them back to work can be even harder. An effective return to work program is one of the best ways to retain an injured worker. It creates flexible work options for an employee while they are recovering and helps you save on your claims costs.

Steve Summers, a Field Service Manager (FSM) at Missouri Employers Mutual, works with policyholders to help them develop solutions after a claim. Summers became an FSM a few years after joining MEM in 2007. As a liaison between employers and MEM claims management staff, Summers works to improve overall claim outcomes. Developing a return to work program is one of the top methods Summers recommends for getting your employees back on the job.

Listen to this interview on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Return to work programs: the basics

Many injured workers go through a difficult time after an incident on the job. An injury takes them away from their workplace and coworkers. It also makes it hard for them to provide for their families. Trying to figure out when an injured worker should jump back into work can be a tricky task.

A return to work program eliminates the guesswork by putting a plan in place before an injury happens. It provides an injured worker with a temporary work assignment that safely accommodates their injury and follows their treating physician’s instructions. Employees work during the recovery phase of their treatment, staying active, employed and on your payroll.

In a return to work program, employees work in a transitional role, also known as light duty. This is usually a modified version of their original job. Tasks that could strain their injury – like lifting or stretching – are removed. If their job can’t be modified, creating a temporary role is an alternative. The employee’s physician should always guide their return to work. This ensures that as an employer, you know what your employee can and can’t do until they are fully recovered.

What are the benefits of having a return to work program?

Both employers and employees benefit from return to work programs. For employers, claims costs can be significantly reduced. Putting an injured worker on light duty allows them to move from a temporary total disability status back to their employer’s payroll. There won’t be a need to hire a new employee. Other workers won’t have to fill the empty position. The employee will receive a paycheck rather than disability pay and keep up their work routine.

Offering employees alternative work options

Accommodating an injured worker is one of the most important parts of a return to work program. For some employers, offering light duty or alternative work options can be a challenge. Smaller companies with fewer staff members may encounter this. “We’ll hear from a mom and pop employer with a few construction staff,” Summers offered as an example. “And they’re going to tell us, ‘Look, we have to have my employees at full duty,’ or ‘They’re just going to get hurt again,’ or ‘We don’t have any positions for them.’” Summers objects to the idea that any employee can’t be accommodated. Even if you have fewer workers to spare, there are still work options available to you and your employees.

How do I modify my employee’s position?

To adjust an employee’s position, Summers suggests looking at their current role. Take their physician’s recommendations into consideration as you look at each job duty. Which actions can they still perform? Can they continue to do their job, but with the aid of a stool or chair? Determine which duties can be slightly changed to help them succeed.

What if my employee’s position can’t be modified?

If your employee’s job can’t be modified, an alternative is to create a temporary position for them. Eliminate the position once they return to full duty. Short-term roles can include:

  • Administrative duties, like filing papers or answering phones
  • Taking inventory and managing supplies

Summers recommends creating jobs that can still be done in the workplace with other employees. Equipping injured workers with high visibility vests allows them to work as spotters on their job site. Creating a repair bench allows them to inspect and fix their coworkers’ tools. In the state of Missouri, employers can change their employee’s shift and place of employment. Employees can move to the business’ home office, or even work from home with permission.

When it comes to alternative work options, always consider modified duty first. If an employee’s duties can’t be accommodated, look at a temporary position. If you don’t have the resources or the employee’s injury just can’t be accommodated, not-for-profit placement is an option. The employee will report to the outside organization for work, but payroll will be their employer’s responsibility. If the wage paid to the employee is lower than their average weekly wage, your work comp provider may make up some of the difference. Check with your provider about available programs.

For more transitional duty ideas, check out Light Duty Options for a Successful Return to Work.

Managing return to work programs

When an employee returns to work on light duty, it can be hard to figure out who should manage the process. It should involve everyone from the employee to the insurance carrier. The biggest role belongs to the injured worker. After every medical appointment, they’ll receive a work slip. They should share it with their supervisor or the Human Resources department. This allows their employer to know the exact restrictions their doctor has put in place.

The employer also takes on shared responsibility. The person with the authority to adjust the injured worker’s position should be directly involved in the process. Your insurance carrier will also play a part in managing the claim. Together with the claims manager and a nurse case manager, they will maintain the line of communication and check in for regular updates.

Manufacturing employee works at table

Creating a return to work program: the essentials

Summers stresses that the most important part of a good return to work program is preparedness. Review the job descriptions of your employees before a potential incident in the workplace. Identify how roles can be modified. Discuss temporary positions for those that can’t. Then, create a transitional duty policy outlining your general return to work process and have all employees sign it.

Making sure an injured worker gets a timely and effective placement after an injury is extremely important. “There is a three-day golden opportunity available to all [Missouri] employers to get their injured workers back in place, back into some kind of modified duty position,” Summers explained. “If an employer can return an employee to work within three days, then it might be the case that workers compensation claims will remain medical-only. And if it stays medical-only, the employer just received a huge benefit towards their experience modifier.”

Understand e-mod: how claims affect your costs

By returning an injured worker to the workplace within three days, you can better protect your experience modification factor (e-mod). “The e-mod is a snapshot of three years of an employer’s losses,” Summers said. “Usually not the first or second year—we’re going to receive a snapshot of an employer’s third, fourth, and fifth years of claims costs.” The state of Missouri relies on the National Council of Compensation Insurance (NCCI) to determine the weight of your e-mod. The NCCI takes your e-mod and compares it to similar businesses in your state to see how your loss experience compares. The average e-mod is 1. Higher losses cause your e-mod—and your premium costs—to increase. Fewer losses mean you’ll receive a discount for being below-average in losses in your industry.

The NCCI weighs lost-time claims more heavily than medical-only claims against your e-mod. “A medical-only claim is actually discounted 70% by NCCI before those claim costs are rolled into an employer’s e-mod calculation,” Summers added. Any extra time it takes to prepare paperwork and get a position lined up for an employee can be costly. A fourth or fifth day delay may trigger total temporary disability and cause the loss of that 70% discount.

This three-day window is based on Missouri’s temporary total disability waiting period, so be sure to research your state’s laws to determine how you can gain a similar benefit. While every state is different, the benefits of having a return to work program ready apply to every business.

Take the first step in creating your program

An early return to work program is one of the best practices an employer can do to improve overall claim outcomes. Not having one is a sure way to increase your e-mod in the event of a claim. If your workplace doesn’t have a return to work program, you can start today by:

  1. Getting corporate buy-in. Share the benefits of creating a program with the executives in your organization. Their support is crucial in making changes to employee positions.
  2. Plan early. Start looking at how your employee’s positions can be modified now—before an injury happens.

Online resources, including our WorkSAFE Podcasts and online resource library, are available to you 24/7. For MEM and Previsor policyholders, there are experts who can help you develop a program, including a Field Service Manager like Summers or a Safety and Risk Consultant. Start creating your return to work program today!

August 2, 2019
Missouri Employers Mutual
Share this article