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The MedMetrics blog provides comments and insights regarding the world of Workers’ Compensation, principally, issues that are medically-related. The blog offers viewpoints regarding issues affecting the industry written by persons who have long experience in the industry. Our intent is to offer additional fabric, perspective, and hopefully, inspiration to our readers.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return-to-Work Sweepstakes

By Karen Wolfe

Recently it seems, Workers’ Compensation industry literature and networking communities are renewing their interest in, and emphasis on Return-to-Work programs. According to WorkersCompensation.com, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) is actively seeking innovative ideas for helping injured workers return to work soon after an injury. Moreover, L&I is offering grants (real money!) for winning ideas!

Grant money for return-to-work projects is available as part of the workers’ compensation reforms passed by the 2011 Washington Legislature and signed into law by Governor Gregoire. Available through the Washington state Safety and Health Investment Projects (SHIP), the grant program funds new projects that develop and implement effective return-to-work programs for injured workers to reduce long-term disability.

The report from WorkersCompensation.com continues, “Promoting new return-to-work projects is an important part of the reforms because research shows that helping injured workers get back to work after an injury helps them recover quicker, reduces long-term disability and lowers overall workers’ comp costs. SHIP grants are designed to encourage new ways of approaching occupational health and safety challenges, as well as promoting cooperation between labor and management.” Wow.

 This initiative reminds me of a return-to-work project in which I participated many, many years ago, one that might have qualified for SHIP grant money. A major grocery chain wanted to create an innovative return-to-work program for their warehouse and shipping workers, something that had not been tried before. They knew keeping those workers at work was key to returning them to full work and also to controlling disability costs.

The Workers’ Comp leaders of this self-insured, self-administered employer engaged the services of the hospital-based occupational health program for which I was the administrator. The idea was that we would help them develop a “Light duty” learning environment for injured workers. Our occupational health service would contribute to creating and presenting lectures, videos, and supplying the educational leaders for the project.

Injured workers were assigned to a classroom where they would benefit from daily lecturers on such topics as nutrition, health, and wellness. The idea was that the content, besides helping employees remain at work during recovery, would also enhance their lives and their health status. It was Wellness 101. Everyone was enthusiastic about the project—except the workers.

It turned out, engaging Teamster-level workers in classroom discussions about the finer points of living well was a challenge. Sitting in a classroom for hours was an anathema for these workers. Frequent smoke breaks were necessary as they heard lectures about the dangers of smoking and the benefits of exercise. I personally began to dread it as much as the workers.

Looking back, asking heavy labor workers to sit in a classroom all day was nothing short of ridiculous. It must have recalled for many of them their years in academia, probably not among best memories for many. Classroom learning was simply not for them and the absentee rate soared. They actually risked their jobs to avoid the return-to-work program!

Not surprisingly, this particular return-to-work program was short-lived. The take-away was that one approach will not fit all employee groups and even if it is creative. “Light duty” or “modified duty” programs must fit individual ability, skills, and optimally, would be in some way related to the injured worker’s regular job. It should make some sense to the worker.

 Nevertheless, this employer should have been honored for creativity, ingenuity, and willingness to try something completely new. It did not work, but it didn’t hurt anyone. The Washington state SHIP may have loved it.

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