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Light duty can ease injured workers back into their jobs

Posted On: Mar. 24, 2017 2:17 PM CST

PHILADELPHIA — Employers may be missing simple opportunities to implement light-duty return-to-work programs that can help them reduce workers compensation and training costs and maintain the productivity of their workforces, according to experts. 

An employee out of work has a 50% chance of returning to work in the same position after six months, but if the employee is out for one year, that chance drops to 25% and is virtually zero if they have been out for two years, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But modified duty can help get these employees back to work, Rob Schiller, assistant vice president of claims for AmTrust North America in Philadelphia, said during the Philly I-Day 2017 conference in Philadelphia on Thursday.

“Quite often, we talk about disabilities,” he said. “Every time I talk to an adjuster or an employer, they say, ‘This is what the person can’t do or this is what the restriction is.’ We want to have everyone focus on what they can do.”

Return-to-work programs can benefit employers by maintaining the productivity of their workforce, reducing turnover and new employee training costs, reducing accident costs and maintaining morale, said Jane Lamb, director of risk management for Philadelphia Gas Works. 

“It’s hard to remember that most people don’t fake injuries,” she said. “I’m putting a caveat in because the final intangible benefit of having a good return-to-work program is it removes the incentive to claim a low-back injury because you need a few days off from work. If you claim an injury that can’t be proven or disproven and your employer doesn’t have light duty, you’re home for a couple of days with pay. If your employees know that absent a significant injury, they’re not going to be missing time, it removes that incentive.”

More accident claims are seen in the fourth quarter of the year, partly because employees who run out of sick or vacation days will claim injuries to take time off for the holidays, Mr. Schiller said. He also once handled a claim in which the injured worker reached a settlement, but then took a similar position at another company and received a second payout from that position, which was “a little frustrating,” he said, noting that the law did not prohibit this. 

On the flip side, some employees want to come back but are frustrated because the employer does not have modified-duty positions, Mr. Schiller said. 

Misperceptions exist about these programs, including that most injured employees do not want to return to work, that they force employees to return before they are ready or put them at risk of re-injury, Ms. Lamb said.

“It is not in my financial best interest to put someone back to work before they are ready, because if they get hurt again, they will be out that much longer and my costs are going to be that much higher,” she said.

As part of her organization’s return-to-work program, Ms. Lamb has temporarily assigned employees under light-duty restrictions to her office to help investigate claims and other tasks.
 
“You make sure you put them in a job you know they can do,” she said. “You work with the doctor. You know what their restrictions are, you put them back in a position that matches that, and you’ll do great.”

One large auto dealership offered an employee under lifting restrictions modified duty that involved another employee assisting him by doing the tasks such as tire changes that required lifting, Mr. Schiller said. 

“Sounds very simple, but most employers miss it,” he said. 

Another auto dealer had an injured mechanic whom they reassigned to help customers set up the electronic features of their cars — an experiment that was so successful and popular that the company established a permanent positon, Mr. Schiller said. 

But these experts warned employers about one of the biggest issues with return-to-work programs: inconsistency, meaning they pick and choose the employees they want to offer modified duty to, Mr. Schiller said. 

“Don’t use this as an opportunity to ‘get’ somebody,” Ms. Lamb said. “Don’t be so cynical that you think that this kind of work should be punitive. This is an opportunity to take an employee who has given you service and to preserve that service and keep the employee in the workforce. Remember, most people really do want to work.”