With so much at stake—both in productivity and workers’ compensation costs—it is imperative that employers return injured workers to work in a timely manner after injury. Consider a couple of interesting facts:
- A worker with a work-related injury who is off work for six months has a less than 50 percent chance of ever returning. This gets less as time passes.
- Work-related injuries requiring surgery result in about six times longer off work for the same surgery that is non-work related.
The challenge is to get workers back to work if they are not yet able to perform at full duty. Modified or “light” duty is used to transition the worker back to some level of productivity. Modified duty takes many forms, performing essential, but less physically demanding tasks for the company. For example, an injured worker who usually loads semi trailers on third shift might sweep and clean the same trailers on second with the physician’s permission. The clerical worker with carpal tunnel might be asked to answer phones instead of typing.
There are many issues regarding modified duty. The first is company policy. It is highly recommended that companies have a written modified duty policy. This demonstrates that returning an injured worker to alternate work is neither a discriminatory nor punitive practice. Second is physician cooperation in allowing modified duty. Some do not trust employers to follow their instruction; others do not understand the job demands or the concept of modified duty and fear being sued for malpractice. The physician is trained to be a patient advocate, not a worker or employer advocate. Often physicians not trained in occupational medicine use only the worker’s description of work demands or perception of whether he/she can work, not objective information from the physician’s examination or the employer.
Then comes the question, especially for the trades: What can my injured worker do on light duty? Some companies are taking a new and proactive step for the companies, workers and community by donating the services of workers who cannot otherwise perform in a physically demanding environment to charities and other volunteer organizations. Not-for-profit organizations often welcome a person to answer phones, stuff envelopes, distribute meals to its clients, etc.
As a final note, other modified duty assignments other employers have workers do include:
- Answering phones/clerical tasks
- Completing safety training or performing safety surveys for the company
- Performing only the non-physically demanding portions of their regular duty
- Delivering products, but not unloading them
- Monitoring incoming and outgoing traffic at a company’s workplace.
When in doubt, use your occupational health provider as a resource to guide your options. IBI