The Workers’ Compensation Board is committed to improving the experience of injured workers and employers by delivering nation-leading initiatives and sharing best practices. Developing an effective return-to-work (RTW) program is a best practice that has tremendous benefits for employers and workers alike.
While preventing on-the-job accidents and illnesses is the best way to reduce employers’ workers’ compensation costs, an effective workplace RTW program also helps improve workers’ lives while reigning in workers’ compensation costs once an injury or illness has occurred.
The longer an injured employee is absent from the workplace, the higher the costs will be to the employer and the insurer. Additional costs may include:
- lost productivity;
- decreased morale;
- increased premiums; and
- costs of hiring and training a new employee if you need to replace the injured employee.
Why Establish a Return-to-Work Program?
RTW programs can alleviate many of the concerns, fears, and frustrations experienced by an employee following a workplace injury. As the employer, your efforts to reach out and offer assistance early on can help the injured worker maintain a positive connection to your workplace.
Research and practical experience show that:
- Only half of injured workers will return to work after a six-month absence, and even less if the absence is longer.
- RTW programs enable all stakeholders to work together in an integrated and enhanced fashion. Furthermore, an RTW program improves communication and clarifies the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in helping the injured worker come back to, and stay at, work.
- An RTW program enables all employees, including those who are not ill or injured, to understand and access a process for resolving difficulties at your work site, including during the period when an injured worker is transitioning back to work.
- When you have a formal workplace RTW program in place, you can begin developing individualized RTW plans immediately after an accident. Predictable, fair, and consistent policies are the most successful.
There are financial incentives, too: Employers with an approved return-to-work program may be eligible for insurance discounts under the Workplace Safety and Loss Prevention Incentive Program managed by the New York State Department of Labor.
More information can be found at Incentive Credit page on the Department of Labor’s website.
The first step in an effective RTW program is full compliance with the legal requirement (WCL §110) to promptly report job-related injuries or illnesses to your insurance carrier within 10 days.
To implement an effective RTW program, employers should also:
Develop Clear Policies and Procedures
- Be proactive.
- Consult your insurance company about any services that may be included in your policy to assist with the creation of a return-to-work program.
- Make a commitment to return injured employees to their pre-injury employment whenever possible.
- Develop written RTW policies and procedures.
- Designate an RTW program contact to coordinate your RTW program and communicate with employees.
- Make every effort to develop and provide meaningful return to work opportunities so that the post-injury job is consistent with an assessment by the injured employee’s treating medical provider. The goal should be to offer the injured worker alternative suitable and available work that is comparable in nature and earnings to their pre-injury job.
- Always provide a safe work environment. When a workplace accident happens, find the cause and fix it.
- Create a job duty bank that details the duties for all assignments. Clearly identify physical activities required to do the work.
Communicate Early and Often with Injured Workers
- Provide information to employees about the workers’ compensation system and benefits.
- Regularly communicate with injured employees during their time away from work and monitor progress upon the injured employee’s return.
Provide Training, Before and After Injuries
- Train all employees on the proper reporting of accidents and injuries.
- When an employee is returning to work, focus the training on that person's capabilities, not their disabilities.
Coordinate with Stakeholders
- Communicate early with the treating health care provider and insurance carrier to encourage recovery and the employee’s return to work.
- Consider conducting an open house of your work site for treating medical providers in your area.
DOs and DON’Ts
|Call the injured worker the day of the injury or the following day. It shows you are concerned and are there to help the worker return to work.||Take any action that discriminates against a worker who files a claim for workers’ compensation benefits (harass or fire, etc.). It is against the law.|
|Comply with union rules where applicable.||Forget to follow the rules in the collective bargaining agreement, if the worker is represented by a union.|
|Provide a safe work environment. Was there something in the accident report that implies an unsafe work environment?||Focus on finding fault when an accident or injury occurs.|
|Consider all potential jobs for the injured worker within their medical restrictions.||Limit employment to the same job duties the injured worker used to perform.|
|Consider providing a reasonable accommodation if the injured worker asks you to.||Ignore a worker’s request for an accommodation or you may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).|
|Ask the worker about their medical restrictions.||Decide what the injured worker’s medical restrictions are. The treating provider sets the injured worker’s medical restrictions.|
|Be aware that other employees may have strong feelings about the returning worker’s transitional duties. Talk about it!||Ignore any hostilities toward the returning worker. Address it immediately.|
|Notify your workers’ compensation carrier as soon as the injured worker returns to work.||Assume that injured workers are in touch with the insurance carrier.|
Return-to-Work Policy Guidelines
A return-to-work policy explains your company’s RTW program to your workforce. Your company’s policy statement will be a point of reference throughout the entire development and maintenance of your RTW program and sets the general scope and guidelines for your program. Developing written policies and procedures provides for standardization of your company’s response to RTW issues and ensures that injured employees are treated fairly and consistently. Your RTW program may entitle you to a premium discount, too. Visit the NYS Department of Labor webpage on Incentive Credits for more information.
An effective RTW policy should:
- Commit to providing meaningful employment to injured employees as soon as medically possible, whether transitional or permanent. This work should be consistent with an assessment by the injured employee’s medical provider, with the goal of offering the employee alternative suitable and available work that is comparable in nature and earnings to the employee’s preinjury job.
- Commit to returning an injured employee to their pre-injury employment as soon as medically possible. If necessary, provide accommodations or modifications, which do not cause undue hardship on either party or violate an existing collective bargaining agreement.
- Include a job duty bank with details on requirements for every role, including transitional or light duty roles.
- Designate an RTW program contact for employees seeking to participate in the RTW program.
- Plan for communication with all parties, including the injured employee, the medical provider, the designated worker representative or union representative, and the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB).
- Ensure injured workers’ treating medical providers are given detailed information about the physical requirements of pre-injury jobs. This will assist providers in determining injured employees’ ability to return to their pre-injury jobs, modified jobs, or alternative work assignments.
- Include the employer, employee, and worker representative in development of a written Individual RTW Plan for each injured employee.
- Monitor the employee’s progress, recovery, and return to work, communicating with the treating medical provider and worker representative.
- Refer an injured employee for a vocational rehabilitation assessment if the employee is unable to perform the essential duties of the pre-injury job or a suitable alternative job.
- Include strategies for maintenance and promotion of the RTW program.
- Develop a method of evaluating the RTW program for appropriateness and effectiveness. Any policy should strive to provide injured workers with the best possible recovery program so that they may return to work with minimal emotional and financial disruption in their lives.
The success of your RTW program depends on employees understanding and adhering to their specified roles and responsibilities, which should be outlined in your RTW program policies and procedures.
These policies and procedures, including an official RTW policy statement, should be distributed to all employees and employee representatives in each workplace location, in methods and languages clearly understood by all employees. Your RTW policy should also be made available to any employee upon request. See Sample RTW Policy Statement.
Steps in a Successful Return-to-Work Program
- (For larger companies) Upon notification of a workplace injury or illness, you should establish a RTW Committee and assign roles and responsibilities to each committee member, including:
- A designated RTW program contact;
- A designated employee representative or union representative;
- The injured employee; and
- The injured employee’s supervisor.
- Provide a written job description that assesses the physical demands of the injured worker’s job to the treating medical provider.
- Review the treating medical provider’s report on the injured employee’s ability to do their current job or transitional work.
- Develop accommodations to the injured employee’s job duties or recommendations for transitional work assignment, if necessary.
- Develop an individualized RTW plan (see below for more details).
- Return injured employee to pre-injury job when employee is medically released for regular work, with accommodations if necessary.
- Provide an official transitional work offer to the injured employee, with a target 90-day time limit.
- Monitor the employee’s progress, recovery, and return to work with adjustments and accommodations when necessary to ensure a successful outcome. Communicate this progress to the employee’s treating physician.
Developing an Individual Return-to-Work Plan
An individual return-to-work plan lays out the steps that need to be taken to return an employee to their pre-injury job. In larger organizations, this plan should be developed jointly by the RTW program contact, the injured employee, the employee’s supervisor, the employee’s health care provider, and the union representative, along with the injured employee’s legal representative, if any.
For small businesses, your insurance carrier or broker may be able to assist you.
The provision for transitional or light duty work is key to a successful RTW program and should be considered in any individual RTW plan. Transitional work activity can be a modified version of the injured employee's original job, the same job with reduced hours, or a combination of tasks from other positions. It can be full or part time but should be a time-limited assignment that is directed toward the injured employee's full return to their pre-accident job. The work must be productive and suitable to maintain the employee's sense of worth.
To identify alternate assignments, determine:
- What necessary tasks could the injured employee perform?
- What tasks, now performed occasionally, need to be done more frequently?
- What tasks could be assigned to someone else?
Be certain to know the physical and other demands of the alternate jobs or assignments that your workplace develops. It is essential that they are within the limitations as prescribed by the injured employee’s health care provider to ensure prevention of re-injury and the full rehabilitation of the employee.
Remember these points:
- If you have 15 or more employees, you are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, you may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to help a disabled person do a job.
- During recovery, focus on what your worker can do!
The individual RTW plan should include:
- Objectives and timetables established to help the injured employee achieve the final goal of returning to pre-injury employment, with accommodation if there is permanent disability.
- A graduated work outline with appropriate timetables consistent with the treating health care provider’s assessment of the injured employee’s capabilities. Graduated work assigns an injured employee to appropriate transitional work activities as soon as the employee is medically released to perform any work. The employee is then expected to take on work of increasing complexity, duration, and/or physical difficulty. It is important to stress that this should be achieved in increments consistent with the treating medical provider’s recommendations and with the goal of eventually returning the injured employee to their pre-injury job at full capacity or with modifications to accommodate any permanent disabilities.
- A beginning and an end. Make sure to include a clear definition of what is considered progress (e.g., the employee can work five hours a day by week three, or the employee can assume a certain task by week five).
- Defined responsibilities for the employee, the supervisor or manager, and any co-worker who will be assisting the injured employee, and the actions each must take to achieve the RTW plan goal.
DOs and DON’Ts
|Consider creating a job for a return-to-work contact within your human resources department.||Assume managers or others at your organization know who needs to do what when a worker is injured.|
|Provide information to employees about the workers’ compensation system and benefits, as well as your return to work program.||Expect workers to be knowledgeable about workers’ compensation or supportive of the organization’s return to work program.|
|Develop functional job descriptions and identify job requirements that clearly identify physical activities required to do the work.||Wait until a worker is injured to document their job description and required physical activities.|
|Create a labor/management safety committee that regularly reviews the workplace for hazards.||Wait until an accident occurs to prioritize workplace safety.|
|Discuss with your employees about how a return to work program benefits everyone.||Reveal the disability status of a person on a transitional work plan.|
Evaluating your Return-to-Work Program
An effective RTW program can provide many benefits to all partners in the return to work process. So, how do you know it’s effective?
It’s recommended you conduct an annual evaluation of your RTW program to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your program so you can focus on continuous improvement.
Your annual evaluation should:
- Be conducted by staff who are knowledgeable about the RTW program, preferably those who are involved in RTW functions regularly (e.g., your RTW program contact, if you have one).
- Be designed to measure specified and quantifiable data points, such as:
- Time from injury to return to work;
- Individual RTW plan duration;
- Cost of accommodations or modifications for injured employees;
- Cost of workers’ compensation premiums;
- Cost of medical and indemnity benefits paid, if you are a self-insured employer;
- Amount of lost time;
- The rates of injured employee retention; and
- Injured employee satisfaction with your RTW program.
- Help you draw conclusions about the appropriateness and effectiveness of the RTW program from year over year comparisons.
- Result in modifications of your RTW program.
If you have RTW tips or success stories of your own, please share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Board has compiled the following resources to assist you in developing and implementing your RTW program.
The materials below are intended as guidance for employers interested in establishing a Return-to-Work program; they are not official documents of the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. To ensure compliance with all regulatory and legal requirements, employers should consult a professional advisor before customizing/using this content and 110(a) authorization from the injured worker should be obtained wherever appropriate.
- Sample Return-to-Work Policy Statement (Word)
- Sample Letter to Treating Doctor (Word)
- Sample Release of Medical Information (Word)
- Transitional Assignment Form
- Plan Development Worksheet
- Sample Individual Return-to-Work Plan Form
- Guide for Writing Job Descriptions
- How to Use the Physical Demands Task Assessment
- Physical Demands Task Assessment
- Sample Letter Making an Offer of Employment (Word)
Advocate for Business
The NYS Workers’ Compensation Board Office of the Advocate for Business is the liaison between New York’s business community and the Board. This office helps businesses with insurance coverage issues and compliance with Workers’ Compensation Law. It also conducts extensive outreach to educate employers and government personnel on the workers’ compensation system and their responsibilities. The office can also discuss the benefits of having a formal return to work program at part of business operations.
For information or assistance, email email@example.com or call (518) 486-3331.