Safety Culture: Creating A Strong Return to Work Program - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Safety Culture: Creating A Strong Return to Work Program

Having a strong return to work program at your company is always a good idea, but with workers’ comp costs predicted to rise in the near future, this practice is even more pertinent.

A return to work program allows an injured worker to remain at work in a temporary or light duty capacity while recovering from their injury. Modified duty programs help to reduce the direct costs of a claim which may have a positive impact down the road.

While every landscape or lawn care company is going to train their employees to avoid injuries, accidents will inevitably happen from time to time. An effective return to work program helps round out your safety program so you know how to respond after an injury occurs.

“It’s important that it’s established and thought out before the injury occurs because trying to create a modified duty program or figure out what to do with an injured employee at the time of injury would be pretty hectic, chaotic and difficult,” says Drew Garcia, vice president of Rancho Mesa Insurance Services.

A return to work program helps shift the injured employee’s focus from pain to recovery. They also get boosted self-esteem by still being able to do meaningful work and get compensated for it, thus improving their mental health as well as their physical conditioning.

“Studies have shown that the longer somebody is out of work, the less likely they are to ever come back to work at all,” says Margaret Hartmann, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Companies. “Permanent disability claims are often litigated and more costly so it is important for employers to get injured workers back into the workplace and on the road to recovery as quickly as possible.”

Not only does having a return to work program help employees recover faster, which can reduce medical costs, an early return to work lowers the duration of temporary disability payments.

“It is also less disruptive for an employer to bring an experienced employee back to a modified position than trying to find a replacement hire to cover all their job duties, especially given the current labor shortage,” Hartmann says.

Garcia adds that underwriters will also note your company’s minimal lost time claims if you have an effective return to work program, which could help them become more aggressive when analyzing your risk profile.

Keys to Success

If you currently don’t have a return to work program, Steve Hamilton, loss control supervisor for Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Companies, says you should first put things in writing. He suggests starting with formal job descriptions. List what your employees do, how long they do it and all of the physical limitations for each job description.

“Try to make sure that if you’re writing a job description, it isn’t one of those that you would consider for a hiring process,” Hamilton says. “This is a job description for a completely different reason. These detail the physical limitations of each job title or task. Job descriptions with physical limitations help to clarify what employees are currently doing for possible comparison to their capabilities after an injury.”

Once they are formally developed, he suggests providing your job descriptions to your workers’ comp clinic before an injury occurs. This allows the treating physician an opportunity to determine if physical restrictions from an injury match current job duties during treatment. If they don’t, the employer can identify a modified duty position accordingly.

“Another thing that I think is important is that you come up with a written job description for a possible modified duty position…this one’s a little tough because every situation is different,” Hamilton says. “Start with a generic position and build on it as needed. Start with a modified job description for someone who can’t lift more than 10 pounds or write a job description for a modified position for someone who can’t stand for more than 20 minutes.”

While there are templates online, be sure to modify these to your specific company. Hamilton says you can also reach out to your insurance company for help.

When it comes to creating modified duty tasks, be mindful that every situation is different and even two back injuries with the same restrictions may need a completely different approach based on the employee’s normal job.

“Treat everybody as an individual,” Hamilton says. “Try to find something that’s effective for each individual.”

He says it’s also important to put someone in charge of the return to work program. It is important for one person to monitor the progress of workers on modified duty and to evaluate current restrictions.  This person should interact with the injured workers as appropriate to ensure that they are following their restrictions. The person in charge is probably someone in Human Resources due to privacy issues involved. Choose the person carefully.

If you already have a return to work program, Hamilton suggests communicating this to your employees from the start during orientation. This lets them know you are going to do everything you can to get them healthy and back to work in an impactful way. An injured employee could serve as an assistant safety manager or mentor new crew members on how to do certain tasks.

“Positions that are perceived as punitive or a punishment are not effective,” Hamilton says. “Employers should consider this when crafting modified duty job descriptions.”

Hamilton says choosing tasks that are not impactful or meaningful from a business perspective will make employees unhappy so try to craft effective positions that are specific to the employee. He says it’s also important to remember that the modified duty is not permanent so set specific limitations and adjust the position every 30, 60 or 90 days as the employee improves.

While some employers may think that bringing back an injured worker will result in them getting hurt further, Hamilton says the opposite is the case if you bring someone in on modified duty and you can monitor them.

The key is making sure the employee is sticking to their light-duty tasks. Foremen should be informed about the employee’s restrictions.

“A lot of landscape companies have working foreman, so they’re not always watching Bob who’s injured but it’s important for them to understand they have a role to play in this program,” Hamilton says. “It might be an educational thing. Teach your foremen, your superintendents, your account managers that they have a role in this return to work program too.”

“I think spending time developing this program in advance of an injury occurring is the key,” Garcia says.

Focus on the basics: develop written job descriptions, provide these to your clinic before an injury occurs, communicate the elements of the plan to your staff and anticipate the next step should an injury occur.  

“Having an effective return to work program requires some planning and communication, but the end result will be improved morale, a stronger relationship with employees and potentially lower claim costs,” Garcia says.

NALP’s safety programs are produced in partnership with Rancho Mesa.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.