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Workers’ Compensation Return-to-Work Program Best Practices

An essential component of workers' compensation is an effective return-to-work (RTW) program.

Eliminating injuries and illnesses is paramount for reducing workers’ compensation costs, but after an incident has occurred, an RTW program can significantly reduce workers’ compensation expenses for employers and improve the lives of employees. Read on for more information on RTW programs and best practices for establishing and maintaining them.

RTW Programs

An RTW program is characterized by specific, documented organizational policies and procedures that provide guidance to supervisors and employees in managing the RTW process following a work-related absence due to injury, illness or chronic disease. Its main goal is to expedite the individual’s recovery and reintegrate them into productivity, achieved through various means such as referral, counseling, coordination of medical care, or adjustments to the workplace or job responsibilities. RTW programs may also include vocational rehabilitation services alongside transitional work options to facilitate a smooth return to full productivity.

RTW Program Best Practicers

An RTW program can assist employees in returning to work faster after a work-related illness or injury, increasing their odds of a full recovery. It also allows employers to save on workers’ compensation costs. Below are best practices for employers to consider to help ensure their RTW program is effective:

  1. Address the basics by reviewing state-specific laws, outlining the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the RTW program, and setting clear expectations.

  2. Put the program in writing and inform employees about RTW policies and procedures as well as processes for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

  3. Establish an RTW contact person whom an injured employee can reach out to with any questions.

  4. Create a safety committee including both management and employees. The committee can identify hazards causing injuries and illnesses and find solutions. Employee members can provide insight into the physical demands of their roles.

  5. Develop functional job descriptions that explain the physical demands and movements necessary for specific job tasks to help employers safely place employees who are returning to work after a work-related illness or injury.

  6. Evaluate a returning employee’s condition and modify job tasks while they are healing. If they are unable to return to work in their previous capacity, match the employee’s skills to where they can work within the company.

  7. Develop individual plans that outline necessary actions for a worker to resume their pre-illness or pre-injury role. In larger organizations, plans should be made collaboratively by the RTW program coordinator, the injured worker, the worker’s supervisor, the health care provider, the union representative and legal counsel, if applicable.

  8. Maintain a job duty bank that lists jobs coordinated with doctor restrictions that employees can be placed into when they have restrictions from a work-related illness or injury.

  9. Communicate early and often with impacted workers.

  10. Integrate and coordinate with all stakeholders to share information while maintaining a focus on employees’ well-being of employees.

  11. Monitor, evaluate and adjust the program by looking at the measurements they should have in place, setting up ways to gather the important data needed to review the RTW program, and continuing to adjust where necessary.

RTW programs that follow best practices provide benefits to employers and employees as they work toward full-time, full-duty work.


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