A return-to-work program is designed to return injured employees to the workplace as soon as it is medically reasonable to do so, even if it’s in a limited capacity in the beginning. A return-to-work program accelerates the reintegration of injured employees into a full performance mode and allows them to achieve quality and productive goals.
Some injuries will preclude the return of an employee to any active work, but the majority of injuries suffered by municipal employees are not serious or life-threatening. In these cases, a return-to-work program is designed to break the typical employee disability cycle.
Many municipalities have policies that state that employees are not allowed to work unless they have a ‘‘full-duty release” from their treating physician. Although there may be an informal effort to bring injured employees back to work on a modified basis, managers and supervisors tend to follow the established policy as a safe course of action.
Such practices, however, can enable injured employees to tell their treating physician that there is no modified work available and that a full-duty release is required. Without any guidelines from the employer, the physician is dependent on the injured worker’s explanation of tasks available in the workplace.
With no formal communication between the treating physician and the employer, and no modified job descriptions, the employee is often allowed to stay home and collect disability benefits, netting approximately the same income as when he or she was active. The longer an employee remains on disability, the less likely it is that he or she will ever return to work. Meanwhile, word spreads that the system may be abused, potentially placing a significant drain on municipal assets and productivity.
When properly incorporated into policy and practice, return-to-work programs have proven successful in reducing the indemnity and medical costs of a workers’ compensation claim. These programs have markedly reduced total workers’ compensation indemnity costs while also reducing medical and rehabilitation expenses. The reduction of lost workdays and costs is a primary goal of an early return-to-work program.
Return-to-work programs also improve morale by helping injured employees feel positive about their contributions while they continue to rehabilitate from an injury.
When an injury occurs, the employee seeks medical care from a physician who determines the extent of the injury. If this treating physician determines that the injury is not serious enough to categorize the injured worker as permanently or totally disabled, the physician may write a “partial release,” specifying the limitations under which the employee can return to work.
Coordination and communication with the employee’s treating physician is a key element of an effective return-to-work program. Job duties should not be left to the employee’s verbal description. The employer should communicate the exact nature of a job to the physician with a detailed description of the specific duties.
For the program to be successful, employees must be fully informed of management’s concern for their welfare before an injury occurs. They should also understand that a return-to-work program is in place as a part of their employee benefits. And employees should be provided with instructions indicating how and when to report an injury.
An effective return-to-work program requires a set of policies and procedures that facilitates post-injury management during every step of rehabilitation. It requires excellent communication, cooperation and coordination among employees, management, the workers’ compensation insurer, and medical care providers.
The implementation of a return-to-work program entails the following steps:
1. Develop and issue a policy statement.
2. Appoint a coordinator to explain the program to department heads.
3. Create modified job and task description manuals.
4. Conduct a task assessment.
5. Provide the treating physician with information that increases the physician’s knowledge of your operations and specific job functions.
6. Develop a communication plan.
7. Prepare a written procedure that details the steps to be taken when an accident occurs.
8. Immediately alert the workers’ compensation carrier of all workplace injuries.
Upon returning to work, the employee and supervisor must work together to increase the employee’s capabilities until he or she reaches pre-injury levels.
MIIA will be distributing its “Return-to-Work Policy Manual” to members later this month. The manual will be introduced at a seminar for MIIA members scheduled for March 26 in Worcester titled “Reducing Workers’ Compensation Costs Through Utilization of Occupational Health and Return-to-Work Programs.”
Niko Pappas is MIIA’s Workers’ Compensation Claims Manager.