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Five keys to making return to work successful

  1. Make return to work an integral part of the company's culture
    To do it right, a back-on-the-job program must be solidly in place before an injury occurs, becoming an integral part of a company's culture. It should be a carefully written policy that reinforces the company's dedication to its employees and return-to-work program, clearly establishing its expectations of employees when injured. Employees should play an integral part in developing the written plan that provides the roadmap for employees, supervisors and health care providers.
  2. Stay in touch with the injured employee
    Making sure the injured employee continues to feel part of the team is the most critical element in any return-to-work effort. An appropriate person, ideally the frontline supervisor if there is good rapport, should be in touch with the injured employee on a regular basis to express compassion and see how they are doing. This should be a friendly, concerned conversation to make the employee realize they are valued and missed and getting everything they need from the company. Get-well cards and other appropriate gestures are also helpful.
  3. Maintain communication during the transitional period
    When an injured employee returns to work have them sign a return-to-work agreement. This agreement should clearly delineate the work restrictions that have been specified by the physician and state that the employee is not required, nor expected to perform any tasks beyond those restrictions. Give some idea of how long you expect the employee to be in the position. Establish clear expectations, but maintain open lines of communication. Ask them how it is going and help them get meaningful feedback to their physician.
  4. Supervisor Training
    One of the biggest indicators if a claim will go bad is the relationship between the employee and supervisor. Knowing how to treat an injured employee is not as obvious as one might think. Pressures to get the job done when short-staffed can convey a message of anger rather than encouragement. Supervisors must be on board with the value of return-to-work efforts and be trained to properly implement them.
  5. Work with the treating physician
    Send an introductory letter to the treating physician with information to help doctors understand the employee's regular job, the return-to-work program, and available alternative assignments. Adopt the approach, "Tell us what they can and cannot do and we will accommodate."

Older workers and return to work

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers some important guidance on specific risk areas related to older workers. The study supports previous findings that older workers tend to have lower or similar injury/illness rates when compared to younger workers, but they take longer to return to the workplace after an injury.

The fastest growing group in the workplace, workers age 55 and over, currently makes up 19% of the workforce. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, older workers were away from work following an injury a median of 11-12 days, compared to only eight days for all ages. Males, who represented 52% of workers age 55 and over, accounted for 55% of injuries among older workers and had longer absences from work compared with females (medians of 14 and 9 days away from work, respectively).

Older workers had higher rates of falls on the same level, fractures, and hip injuries compared with younger workers and workers of all ages. Fractures accounted for 11% of all injuries among workers age 55 and over and resulted in high median numbers of days absent from work (32 days for workers age 55-64 years and 42 days for workers age 65 and over). The most frequently fractured body parts among older workers were ankles (13% of fractures), wrists (13%), arms (11%), feet (11%), legs (11%), fingers (7%), and hips (7%).

Although physical limitations of the older worker such as poor balance, slowed reaction time and visual deficits may be partly to blame, employers need to recognize that a one-size-fits all approach to workplace safety does not work. If a young employee falls, the result is often only a bruise; a fall for an older employee can mean a broken hip. Simple steps such as ensuring floor surfaces are clean, dry, well lit, and free from tripping hazards can help to reduce the specific risks for older workers. Carpeting and other skid resistant surfaces particularly at entranceways where workers are likely to be coming in with wet shoes from rain or snow can serve to reduce falls.

Other areas where employers can improve the safety and productivity of older workers include: