Returning to work
Successful programs can help lower employer costs, including workers' compensation
Experts say various misconceptions may make some employers reluctant to institute a return-to-work program.
One of these, Simpson said, is that returning an employee to work costs a lot of money. The Job Accommodation Network has determined that the cost of returning an injured worker to the job is minimal – only about $500. The costs stem from accommodations made for the returning worker, and could include new equipment or on-the-job training if the worker is reassigned to a different position. About half the time, according to Simpson, employers have reported no cost to providing injured workers with accommodations.
Certain modifications may be on the expensive side, but they may improve occupational safety and health at a broader level, Stock said. For example, if a conveyer belt is too low or too high, adjusting its height could prevent future injuries.
Another misconception is that a worker will be re-injured upon return. Simpson said employers should not assume a re-injury will occur, and ensuring appropriate accommodations are in place upon a worker’s return is one way to mitigate the risk of re-injury.
Although some employers may believe injuries are fraudulent, Mayer said most of the time that is not the case. However, depending on how an employer handles the case, an injury could become fraudulent. He gave the following example: An employer might believe light duty is letting employees “off the hook” and will give the returning employee a job he or she does not like, leading the worker to feign another injury. Still, Mayer stressed that fraudulent injuries are “few and far between.”
Employees can have their own misconceptions as well. According to Simpson, for many workers, it is the unknown: Will returning to the job work out; will it benefit me? These fears can be calmed through a well-run return-to-work program.
The National Academy of Social Insurance attributes part of the recent increase in employer workers’ compensation costs to the economic recovery following the mid-2000 recession – more employees returning to the workforce means higher costs for employers.
However, other drivers exist for the increased cost employers are facing in their premiums, according to Sean Mayer, an account executive for risk management and insurance brokerage firm Holmes Murphy & Associates. One such factor is growing medical costs, which Mayer said are inflating nationwide. Experts point to several reasons for these rising costs, including growing provider prices, increasing cost of medical technology, waste, an aging population and unhealthy lifestyles.
America’s increasingly unhealthy workforce directly contributes to driving up workers’ comp premiums, Mayer said. More than one-third of all Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a recent NIOSH study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Vol. 46, No. 3) found that nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers are obese.
Obesity is closely linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that raise an individual’s risk of developing heart disease and other health problems, including diabetes and stroke, the Department of Health and Human Services warns.
“We are not a healthy nation. Not being healthy leads to injuries,” Mayer said, adding that workers with metabolic syndrome are more likely to be injured and take longer to recover from injuries, both of which increase medical costs.
Elements of a good program
A key to a good return-to-work program is developing one before you need it, Simpson recommends.
Every injury and every return-to-work situation should be treated individually. However, employers can prepare ahead of time by maintaining current job descriptions and listing possible light-duty assignments for each of those jobs.
Job descriptions need to be kept up to date, Simpson stressed, and employers should make sure employees are actually doing what is outlined in the job description. Mayer said an organization’s return-to-work plans should be communicated to employees at hire and on an annual basis.
“They know if they get hurt, there’ll be something for them to do,” Mayer said.
In terms of reassignment, a returning worker should be qualified for the job he or she is given, Simpson said. If the returning employee is given a new assignment during recovery, the process should not be any different than when a completely new employee is brought in – the same type of training should be done.
Light duty can mean many things – and not necessarily simply filing or sorting paperwork. Returning workers placed on light duty can answer phones or organize the next safety meeting, for example.
Employers should work with a local clinic or hospital and inform the staff about the kind of work performed at the jobsite, as well as about the return-to-work program. This way, if an injured employee visits the clinic, the medical team knows what type of light-duty work is offered at the jobsite.
In most states, workers can choose where they receive treatment. For situations in which an employee chooses to not go to the employer’s preferred clinic, Mayer recommended that employers reach out to those doctors to work within restrictions for the injured employee.
When a doctor gives the injured employee work restrictions, the employer should learn the specifics, Stock said. A prohibition against “heavy lifting” is vague; knowing an employee is barred from lifting a specific amount is more helpful.
If a new job assignment is not working out, employers should assure employees that they are willing to help fix the situation, Simpson said.
Communication is vital to the process as well. Along with the employee’s doctor, employers should maintain open lines of contact with the injured employee, and do so without using fear tactics, Mayer said. If attorneys become involved, he advised employers to stay calm, keep good documentation and consistently follow procedures.
A good return-to-work program should evaluate the circumstances that led to the injury in the first place, Stock said. Learning how the injury occurred and what can be done to prevent future injuries can help reduce the chance of the returning worker being re-injured, as well as injuries to other workers.
“Ultimately, everybody wants to prevent these injuries from occurring. It’s not a good situation for workers or employers to have workers out on workers’ comp,” she said. “So taking those lessons and preventing future injures from occurring is really important.”
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