How and when a company allows employees to return to work after experiencing an injury or illness is something that many companies don’t plan for until the situation is actually happening, which is unfortunately the wrong time to start thinking about it.
When these situations arise, leadership will usually turn to their Human Resources and EHS teams for guidance only to discover two very different theories for the best way to handle this situation—and two very strong sets of opinions to go along with that. When you peel back the layers to find out why Human Resources and EHS are not aligned on how to manage return to work situations, what you’ll find are two departments that ultimately want what’s best for the employee and the employer, but two very different ideas of what that looks like.
Return to Work: The Issues
The disparity between the departments is usually because neither department fully understands all the parts in play when returning an employee to work after a workplace accident, injury or illness. In general, the usual roadblock is whether or not to allow employees who have experienced a non-work related injury or illness to return to work before they’ve been cleared for full duty and can work without restrictions.
Human Resources might not realize that by allowing employees to return to work who have experienced a non-work related injury or illness, the company opens the door to the possibility that the employee could re-injure or significantly aggravate their condition and if this happens, the company then becomes responsible financially and administratively for that injury or illness.
For example, if an employee falls off a ladder at home and hurts his or her back and is allowed to return to work in a light or modified duty capacity and then re-injures or significantly aggravates their injury while performing that light or modified duty job, the employer then becomes responsible for that injury both financially and administratively, meaning, it goes on the 300 log.
When confronted with this possibility, a common response from HR is to consider this a management issue, not a safety issue because if an employee’s restrictions are managed properly, this probably won’t happen. However, for an EHS person it’s hard to understand why the company wouldn’t want to eliminate the risk entirely by having a policy that prohibits employees who have suffered a non-work related injury or illness from returning to work unless they’ve been cleared for full duty.
This is where a safety professional may not fully understand all the legal issues that may be involved by having a prohibitive policy like this in place. For example, an EHS professional may not be aware of potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing an accommodation to that injured employee.
The best way for companies to avoid this situation entirely is for Human Resources and EHS to work together and collaborate on a formal, written program that addresses the concerns on both sides. To do this, both departments have come to the table with open minds and open ears, and be willing to work together as equal partners, which can be difficult to do especially when one department has a higher authority level than the other.
What’s Included in Your Return to Work Program?
When developing a written program, you’ll first need to determine a few key things such as (but not limited to):
- Who will be eligible for the program and whether or not employees with non-work related injuries or illnesses will be eligible.
- Who will be the key leadership team members responsible for facilitating this program.
- What should happen after an injury has occurred (especially after hours, on weekends and holidays).
- How to manage injuries from temporary employees and/or with employees who are part of a collective bargaining unit.
- How and when supervisors and managers should communicate with medical providers.
- Whether you’re going to formally offer light or modified duty work assignments, how long those assignments can last—and what happens if someone declines an offer.
- A list of light or modified duty work assignments that can accommodate a variety of restrictions.
- Specific information on the hours that light or modified duty jobs are able to work, whether overtime is permitted, handling medical appointments during that time, transportation to those appointments, etc.
Physical Job Demands
Another thing you’ll want to establish if you haven’t already are physical job demands for each role or position within the company outlining things like the frequency of certain movements, dexterity requirements, exposures to things like chemicals, noise, temperature extremes and what kinds of PPE an employee might have to wear for long periods of time. These are the documents that your medical provider will be reviewing to determine whether someone can return to work without restrictions or not—so they’re very important to develop and maintain.
In addition to playing a big role in the Return to Work program, having physical job demands created for each of your positions provides a few other benefits that make them well worth doing. For example, physical job demands can help ensure that the most appropriate candidates are recruited and hired for roles because they give potential candidates a very transparent view of the type of work they will be performing and what the physical and mental expectations of that job will be.
If you’re in need of a template to get you started with this process, use ours! Our Physical Job Demands Evaluation template provides an easy to use form to help you analyze and document everything necessary to paint a complete picture of the physical demands required by each one of your positions.
How and when you communicate with your medical provider is really important, especially the communication that happens after an injury but prior to treatment being provided. This is really the one opportunity you have to explain to the medical provider whether you can accommodate most restrictions and ask them to consider using non-prescription medications before writing out a prescription.
Even though this initial communication is so critical, it doesn’t always happen because either the supervisor or manager isn’t comfortable having these communications or they don’t realize they should and so the opportunity is missed.
One great way of avoiding these issues is by having a standard letter that outlines these things which can be provided to the medical provider prior to treatment. The key to writing a letter such as this is to remember that the medical provider’s first and foremost responsibility is to the injured employee, not to the company he or she works for.
This initial communication with the medical provider should be brief, respectful, appreciative and reflect a company’s dedication to providing the best care to their workforce. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression so make sure that whatever you include in your initial correspondence with the medical provider that it doesn’t dictate to the provider how to provide medical care or include ultimatums or anything else that would indicate the primary focus is on metrics and not the wellbeing of your workforce.
Writing this initial letter can be difficult to do so we’ve created a letter template to give you a head start in the process. Our Return and Release to Work Forms template can be modified or used “as is”. All it needs is your letterhead and company information.
To Work…or Not To Work…
Speaking of communicating with your medical provider, how many times have you had an injured employee come back from receiving medical treatment with a set of instructions from the treating physician that are extremely vague, confusing or overly excessive? Then when you try to call the medical provider’s office for clarification, the treating physician has seen so many patients that they really can’t remember why they gave your employee a week off of work for a splinter. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it happens all the time.
Medical professionals who treat workplace injuries are sometimes stuck between a rock and hard place when treating workplace injuries because they don’t always have a good idea of what kind of work an employee performs every day or what kind of light or modified work assignments are available.
Without this information, they either have to rely solely on what the injured employee says or try and accommodate the worst case scenario by being vague or overly excessive with work restrictions. A great way to prevent this frustration is by ensuring your medical provider has all the information they need about an employee’s job and a simple form to document how and when an employee can return to work.
When used in conjunction with our Physical Job Demands Evaluation, our new Release to Work form provides an easier way for the medical provider to properly evaluate whether or not an employee can return to work and to then provide specific and appropriate work restrictions for that employee.
If you’re faced with the situation where an employee presents work restrictions from their own doctor or from an urgent care or emergency room doctor for injuries sustained off the job, the best thing to do is to get a second opinion from your medical provider before allowing the employee to return to work. The medical provider will again use the physical job demands you’ve created and then based on the injury sustained, will document whether the employee can return to work or not and under what conditions.
Once an employee has been given the green light to return to work but with restrictions, it’s important to find suitable and meaningful work for that employee to do. Having a pre-created list of light and modified duty work assignments that can accommodate things like seated only work or work that restricts the use of an arm or hand, etc., is very useful and helps reduce the stress of trying to find things for an injured employee to do all day.
It’s equally as important to make sure that the injured employee is properly informed about the light or modified duty assignment they will be performing and understands any expectations the employer might have of that employee during their temporary work assignment.
The employee should fully understand what the temporary assignment includes, how temporary it is (30 days? 60 days?), that they will be required to adhere to all company policies (including attendance policies) during the temporary assignment and what the work hours for the temporary assignment will be (which may differ from their regular position hours). In addition, the employee should be given the opportunity to formally accept or decline the temporary offer.
If this seems like a lot of work for a temporary work assignment, it is but there’s a good reason for doing things this way. Frequently employees who are unable to perform their full work duties aren’t managed properly and they end up missing work, coming in late, spending hours in the breakroom or going missing for several hours a day, among other things. This kind of behavior is very visible to the rest of the workforce and can breed resentment as well as entice other employees to claim injuries just so they can get paid to sit in the breakroom, too.
However, all of this can be eliminated by requiring that all temporary assignments include a formal offer that outlines all the job requirements and expectations and that forces an employee to either accept the temporary role or decline it. When accepted, the employee is stating they fully understand those expectations and requirements and by declining it, they fully understand the consequences which could be a denial of workers compensation benefits.
If you’re interested in including a formal offer process to your Return to Work program but aren’t quite sure what it should include, let us help. Our Temporary Modified-Light Duty Offer Letter template will provide a good foundation for this process to help you get started. All you need to do is download it and add your company specific information.
Really successful Return to Work programs require a good relationship with a medical provider who will listen, communicate openly and who will make the best medical decisions for your employees (even if the result isn’t favorable to your 300 log). However, it’s very common for underlying issues with a medical provider to surface that may not have been really obvious prior to implementing your Return to Work program.
You might find things like a lack of quality care or a lack of interest in participating fully with the guidelines of your new Return to Work program. If you can discuss these issues openly with your medical provider and if you see an improvement on their end, that’s great but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. The last thing you want is to find yourself without a medical provider but it happens all the time—so what do you do?
The best way to protect yourself from this happening is to pre-screen other medical providers in the area that can quickly replace your current provider if needed. If you’re not quite sure how to interview a medical provider, we can help. We’ve created a customizable Provider Interview form that will help you know what to ask and that offers some guidance on how to interpret answers during the interview process so that you find the best medical provider for your needs.
Putting it All Together
Having a solid, well written Return to Work program doesn’t have to be overly complicated if you plan it out properly from the start. Once you know what you want to include you can usually envision the rest of the program fairly easily.
We know that the hardest part of this process isn’t writing the actual written policy, it’s creating all of the additional items like communication templates and the forms you’ll use within the program. This is why we’ve created many of these forms and templates so that you don’t have to spend time reinventing the wheel.
Check out our Return to Work templates located in our Resource Center.