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Implementing effective return-to-work program

It also remains clear that the longer a worker remains off work, the more difficult it is to help them return to the workplace. This also places additional pressures on the workers who remain in the workplace and must pick up the slack for the worker who is off while injured.

What is important is that employers know what their responsibilities are and what tools are available for them to fulfill those duties.

Set clear expectations with return to work.

The key to successful return-to-work programs is communication and monitoring. Employers should develop and implement a formal return to work policy and program, and should educate their workers about the program when they begin working with your organization. The program should be reviewed with employees again in the event of a workplace injury. At that time, employers should express their commitment to assisting the worker with their return to work, the steps to be taken to that end and the role of the workplace parties in the return to work process.  

Employers should obtain functional abilities information from the worker and collaborate with them in order to identify suitable duties. Functional abilities information may be obtained from the worker directly or from their physician or health care provider (physiotherapist or chiropractor). Employers should advise the treating physician or health care provider of the availability of suitable work and request their assistance in the return-to-work process.

Know your workplace and the details of the work performed within it.

The ultimate goal of return-to-work programs is to assist workers in returning to their pre-injury job. Workers are generally much happier when they are able to return to their pre-injury job as it signifies a return to normalcy following an injury. In order to do this, employers need to understand what work is available within their facility and what the physical demands are of each position.

Employers should complete a physical demands analysis  (PDA) for each position at the workplace so that they know the physical demands and requirements for each job. This will assist in determining whether a position is suitable for a worker who may have medical restrictions preventing them from performing certain activities. 

When discussing suitable duties with the employee, employers often bypass the pre-injury duties and move straight to accommodated work. The return-to-work hierarchy is simple: 

—Determine whether the worker is able to perform their pre-injury duties. If so, have them perform those duties;

—If the worker is unable to perform their pre-injury duties to their full capacity, look at accommodating those duties so that they are suitable for the workers’ functional abilities;

—If the worker is unable to perform the tasks associated with their pre-injury duties, offer other suitable work, either at the pre-injury worksite or a comparable worksite.

Employers are often intimidated by the prospect of assisting workers with returning to work. Examine what the worker can do instead of what the worker cannot do, and modify their job accordingly, if possible.

Maintain open communication and monitor the progress of the return to work.

It is important to remember that the return-to-work process should be finite in duration. As a worker recovers from their injury, they should be able to return to their pre-injury job.  Employers need to monitor the workers’ progress in order to stay on track. Many return-to-work programs become prolonged due to a lack of monitoring. Remember that return-to-work is a joint venture between the employer and the worker. Obtaining the workers’ assistance in identifying suitable duties and communicating the status of their recovery is critical.

Should any issue arise, including disputes over whether the work offered is suitable,  or  whether the worker is able to perform specific tasks or issues with cooperation, be sure to communicate these to the compensation board and obtain assistance as soon as possible. Often, there are services available such as ergonomists or mediators who can assist in identifying issues and working through them.

Understand your role in the return-to-work process.

Not every return-to-work will be successful, and employers will not always be able to provide workers with suitable duties. However, it is important to understand that employers are required to offer suitable duties to an injured worker if those duties are available. Employers cannot force an injured worker to accept those duties, but must communicate to the worker their role in the return-to-work process, and the possible consequences for non-cooperation.

Such consequences include a possibility that the worker will not receive benefits from the compensation board if it is confirmed that the duties offered are suitable. In those situations, employers must leave it up to the compensation board to make a determination as to suitability of the work and entitlement to benefits. Should you disagree with their determination, you have the right to exercise an appeal.

The key aspects to successful return-to-work programs are communication and monitoring. Employers need to understand their role in the process and fulfil that role to the best of their abilities.

David Marchione is an OHS consultant and paralegal with Gowlings You can contact him at

david.marchione@gowlings.com

or through the company’s website

www.gowlings.com/ohslaw.

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and www.cos-mag.com.
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