Oftentimes, when a workplace injury happens, most injured workers return to their jobs- whether immediately or after a graduated accommodated duty plan lasting a couple of weeks. For some, however, problems may arise that make returning back to work a much longer and more complicated process. So how can you help employers resolve complex problems that prevent successful Return-to-Work?
As experts in Human Capability, Ergonomics Consultants can add value to those employers with complex return-to-work cases, specifically with Functional Abilities and a safe process. Below, you’ll see some common issues that complicate the Return-to-Work process, as well as several helpful practices for resolving them. This post was inspired by a document from the Institute for Work & Health.
One of the things that I think is very important for return-to-work is being aware of certain situations. In each of those situations, there's going to be an optimal situation and a non-optimal situation. In a 2009 report entitled Red Flags/Green Lights: A Guide to Identifying and Solving Return-to-Work Problems, the authors give warning signs (red flags) and helpful practices (green lights) in various return-to-work situations. You can look at the red flags below to help your employer clients identify warning signs of return-to-work situations and evaluate possible reasons for slower work returns. You can check the green lights for helpful practices that ensure the successful return of injured workers. Knowing these and sharing them with your employers is so valuable. It can help develop that know, like, and trust factor with the organizations and companies in your area. Here are the return-to-work situations that the document highlighted:
Red flag: Besides those employees who simply aren't physically ready to go back to their pre-injury jobs, this category includes employees who’ve been required to return immediately after the injury or even before the injuries have been accurately diagnosed by the physician. Another red flag is when the employee takes time off work following the initial return to work, which may indicate pain or worsening of their injury. All scenarios can lead to slow return to work, re-injury, or impede the initial recovery.
Green lights: If there’s a concern about the safety of returning to work due to the scope of the employee’s injury, conducting a Functional Abilities Assessment after the injury allows them to have a meaningful accommodation that adds value to the workplace. Providing more flexible RTW planning can aid the injured employee’s healing and ensures that they return to work safely.
Red flag: The injuries may make driving difficult or unsafe for the injured employees. They may also have problems with using public transportation, or the commute might involve a long travel time that can worsen the injury or result in failed RTW.
Green lights: Provide transportation assistance or, if possible, temporary work-from-home arrangements to have a timely and safe return to work.
Red flag: A modified job that seems suitable at first may have hidden problems for the workers’ physical restrictions. Giving employees unsuitable work tasks can impede their recovery. The red flags you need to pay attention to includes inability to perform work tasks and regularly asking for co-worker assistance.
Green lights: As an Ergonomic Consultant, this is a great opportunity for you to provide ergonomic assessments or a Physical Demands Analysis. It can help clarify actual job tasks and physical demands. Doing helpful practices like job orientation and ongoing monitoring of the employee’s modified job is also important.
Red flag: If the injured workers return to their modified work in the same workplace where the hazards (ex. environmental hazards and faulty equipment) that caused the injury still exist, they might be re-exposed to them. The trauma of their injury can make returning to work emotionally hard, which can affect their performance as well as the other workers.
Green lights: You can help relieve their worries by conducting health and safety reviews and job reorientation.
Red flag: For this category, you need to be aware of any worker-employer conflicts. This can either mean that the modified work is not suitable or the day-to-day tasks of the modified work are different from the job description that the employer and the injured employee have agreed on. Unsuitable job modification can result in medication overuse or work absences.
Green lights: Both the employer and the injured employee should agree on the RTW accommodation plan, and it should be in writing. By providing ergonomic assessment services, you can help the employees have appropriate workplace accommodations.
Red flag: Does the modified work add value to the workplace? Does the injured employee experience harassment? An embarrassing modified job can devalue an injured worker in front of their coworkers or supervisors.
Green lights: Make sure that the modified work is meaningful. This means that it should be physically appropriate, available, and productive. Educating all workers in the organization about their role in the RTW is crucial in this situation, and that's another opportunity for you to provide other services.
The bottom line here is that implementing an effective Return-to-Work program is essential to ensure that the injured employees have a timely and safe return to work. This guide from the Institute for Work & Health gives you various options that you can share with your clients as the need arises.
Like I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of opportunities for you to provide ergonomic services in each of those difficult RTW situations, such as ergonomic risk assessments, functional accommodations, Physical Demands Analysis, or Functional Abilities Evaluations. All these have a role in our Return-to-Work process.
One important thing you need to keep in mind when you're doing Return-to-Work is that the Functional Abilities have to be updated every two weeks. As ergonomic professionals, we need that data to make sure that we're putting them into jobs based on their current functional abilities.
That’s it! I hope you remember to use this guide the next time you have to help employers deal with complex Return-to-Work situations. Not only will they get better results, but you’ll also gain that know, like, and trust factor that’s so key for building long-term relationships.
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