EHS Administration, EHS Management, Injuries and Illness

How to Build Your Light-Duty and Return-to-Work Programs

If any of your employees are away from work following a workplace injury, you want them back on the job as soon as possible. Returning an employee to work following an injury benefits both the employee and employer. The employee can regain a sense of normalcy and financial and job security, while the employer can limit the costs of lost productivity and workers’ compensation insurance claims.

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You need a clear, written light-duty and return-to-work policy for navigating the requirements of your state’s workers’ compensation laws while steering clear of the potential legal land mines of discrimination and medical leave laws.

Return to work may include light duty—work responsibilities different from a worker’s regular duties. Return to work also may involve a partial or restricted return to work—resumption of a worker’s essential, but not all, regular duties. A partial return to work could include all of a worker’s regular duties but for a limited number of hours.

Common Return-to-Work Program Elements

A return-to-work program must fit into an overall workplace safety and health framework, along with workers’ compensation.

Workers’ compensation laws vary by state, but the laws shield employers from liabilities due to worker injuries, illnesses, and deaths. They provide workers’ families with a death benefit if a worker is killed on the job. Workers’ compensation covers the costs of medical treatments and provides lost wages for injured workers.

In some ways, the return-to-work program kicks in as soon as an employee is injured. Most return-to-work programs include several common elements:

  • Steps to follow after an injury has occurred;
  • Procedures to follow when communicating with healthcare providers, supervisors, the worker, and the union if a collective bargaining agreement is in place;
  • A schedule for monitoring a worker’s needs and progress while away from work;
  • Light-duty positions identified before the need arises;
  • Handouts about the return-to-work program for use in the new hire onboarding process;
  • Videos and other materials produced or acquired regarding accommodation and job modification, rehabilitation, and workplace redesign to clearly communicate return-to-work policies;
  • Policies for ensuring light-duty assignments are appropriate for an injured worker’s capabilities and do not violate any of a physician’s restrictions;
  • Procedures for involving the injured worker in identifying suitable light-duty assignments; and
  • A schedule for reviewing the entire return-to-work program.

Chance to Reengage Worker in Work

Injured workers can become disengaged from work while away from the job. During treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery, they must deal with healthcare providers, insurance companies, Human Resources personnel, and others. Some of these people will not have the return-to-work interests of the employee and employer in mind.

After having to deal with those involved in benefits, treatment, and rehabilitation, a return to work can restore a worker’s sense of normalcy. Return to work helps workers to reengage with and resume the essential functions of their jobs. It can help workers overcome the obstacles of returning to work and boost the morale of the injured worker, as well as coworkers.

Return to work benefits employers by not only controlling the costs of workers’ compensation claims but also lowering or eliminating the costs of absenteeism, lost productivity, or training a new worker.

Having a Written Policy in Place

Employers should have a written light-duty or return-to-work policy in place before they need one. A written policy ensures return-to-work procedures are followed consistently. If light-duty or return-to-work opportunities are offered to some workers but not others, the employer can be exposed to employment discrimination litigation.

A written policy should explain to workers:

  • Being away from work can result in reduced or lost wages;
  • Workers may lose their own and their families’ medical coverage once Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave expires;
  • That workers must keep the employer informed of their progress and ability to return to work and that the company will contact them to gather this information;
  • How long light-duty assignments are expected to last; and
  • That being assigned a light-duty job does not constitute a new employment contract between the employee and employer.

Managers developing or reviewing a return-to-work policy must keep several employment laws in mind, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FMLA, as well as their state’s workers’ compensation laws and any additional state disability or medical leave laws.

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Deciding Who Has Authority, Responsibility

Companies should decide which manager has responsibility for the return-to-work program, who is then authorized to make decisions about light or alternate duties and workplace accommodations for injured workers’ disabilities.

The primary point of contact for all injured workers should be the company’s return-to-work coordinator. The return-to-work coordinator should have a thorough knowledge of the ADA, FMLA, the company’s short-term and long-term disability coverage and disability policies, and workers’ compensation law and the company’s coverage. The coordinator also will need a concrete understanding of the relationships among all these laws and policies.

The coordinator will need access to workers’ medical information and must comply with health information privacy requirements.

Return-to-Work and Light-Duty Review

Employers should review all current job descriptions to identify the essential functions of each job. If employees return to work with medical restrictions, such as reduced duties or reduced hours, having essential functions documented of each job will assist in reconfiguring positions and determining what duties can be reassigned.

Employers also should compile a list of light-duty assignments before such assignments are needed. These duties should provide real value to the employer. Light duty should never be busywork or duties that could be perceived as punishment for being injured.

Light duties could encompass administrative work, safety functions, or training. Light duty may be different from a worker’s regular duties and may require some retraining or supplementary training.

Develop Program Forms

The return-to-work coordinator should develop forms for use in the return-to-work program. The form should include a statement that refusing a light-duty or modified return-to-work position would be considered job abandonment and would result in termination of employment, as well as disqualification of the employee for continued workers’ compensation benefits.

The form should have spaces for:

  • Start date of the light-duty or modified return-to-work position;
  • Hours of the position;
  • Name and title of the supervisor the employee reports to in the position;
  • Description of the position’s duties and any agreed upon restrictions or accommodations;
  • Deadline for acceptance of the position; and
  • Employee’s name, signature, and date, along with a check box indicating the employee accepts the temporary position.

Communicating Policy Before Injuries

The process of onboarding new hires should include communicating the return-to-work policy. Discussion of policies and any materials explaining the company’s policies could be presented when talking about the company’s workplace safety policy and workers’ compensation coverage.

New hires should be given contact information for the return-to-work coordinator.

Communication After Injury

The return-to-work coordinator must remain in contact with injured workers for several reasons, including:

  • Keeping workers engaged with their jobs, maintaining the employee-employer relationship;
  • Tracking workers’ progress through treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation; and
  • Staying informed of workers’ ability to return to work and any disabilities that require accommodations or necessitate light-duty assignments.

Ongoing contact will reinforce the understanding that workers are expected to return to work as soon as physically possible.

Continuing contact can prevent any workers from “falling through the cracks” and never returning to work. Discussions should include the timing, scope, and nature of a light-duty or return-to-work assignment.

Avoiding Reinjury

Since many injuries are sprains and strains, return-to-work assignments should avoid the risk of reinjury. The return-to-work coordinator must consult with supervisors to redesign job tasks, even if the job tasks are part of a regular position’s essential functions

Return-to-work assignments should minimize the need for significant body motions, such as bending, reaching, or twisting. Return-to-work assignments also should reduce or eliminate the need to lift, pull, or push.

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ADA Considerations

The ADA requires employers to make accommodations in the workplace for workers’ disabilities. These requirements also may apply when employees return to work. Duties may need to be readjusted or reallocated if redesigning the job tasks is impractical or infeasible. The return-to-work policy should give supervisors guidance on making accommodations for workers who are cleared to resume some, but not all, of their duties.

An employee’s physician may insist on temporary restrictions of a worker’s duties. For example, an employee whose duties had included lifting and carrying 50 pounds (lb) may now only be able to lift 10 lb. If lifting is a minor aspect of the worker’s position, perhaps the lifting tasks can be reassigned.

Reviewing the essential functions of all positions will aid in making accommodations in return-to-work positions.

The return-to-work coordinator must pay close attention to a physician’s restrictions. The light-duty or return-to-work position offered must not include any duties that would violate the physician’s restrictions.

If the offered position fails to accommodate a worker’s disabilities, that would invalidate a “job abandonment” defense if the worker refuses the position and is terminated.

State Incentives, Reimbursement

States also have an interest in seeing that injured workers or workers who are away on leave return to work. Workers’ continued employment reduces the burden on states’ social assistance programs.

For these reasons, some states offer assistance to employers, like wage subsidies and reimbursements for accommodation costs.

Employers in North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington State may be eligible for reimbursements for accommodation costs and wage subsidies. Employers may be eligible for reimbursements for accommodations in California, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Montana, and Texas.

Employers Should Be Prepared

Employers must have a return-to-work program in place before they need one. The primary benefit of having a program in place is the ability to retain a trained, experienced worker. An effective return-to-work program raises worker morale while lowering the costs of absenteeism, lost productivity, and training new workers.

Having a clear policy communicated in the onboarding process helps ensure the program is administered consistently and can spare an employer the headache of litigation under a number of federal and state laws.

The coordinator responsible for return to work must be well-versed in the ADA, employment discrimination, the FMLA, and workers’ compensation law.