Accommodating Medically-Imposed Work Restrictions

Unfortunately, even with the best efforts to prevent workplace injuries, employees may still get hurt and then the medical provider may impose a work restriction that temporarily limits their activities. For many employers this appears to be a situation in which they have few to no options; however, there is still an opportunity to control the cost of this workers’ compensation claim, but it requires action on the part of the company. That action is known by many names – modified duty, light duty, early return to work programs, even restricted duty. Regardless of the name, the objective is the same and that is to accommodate the medically-imposed work restriction. Using modified duty is not easy. It will require time and effort. It sometimes involves shuffling the job duties of others or trying to create productive work for the injured employee out of thin air. It may even require that training be conducted for one or more employees to perform tasks that they have never performed before. However, the benefits of doing so are numerous. This newsletter describes them as well as addressing some of the common objections for not doing so.

Financial Advantage Benefit – A portion of the cost of workers’ compensation insurance claims includes the payment of temporary total or partial disability. This payment is better known as lost wages. Ironically, that descriptive phrase applies more to the employer losing wages as opposed to the employee losing wages because it is payment for “not working.” Initially this payment is made by the insurance provider, but in the long run the company will ultimate pay for it through increased insurance premiums, so it can really be said that the company is making the payment for an employee to not work. Read that phrase again – the company is making the payment for an employee to not work. That just does not make good financial sense. What is the other option? Accommodate the medically-imposed work restriction. There are two definite advantages for doing so. It will reduce or eliminate the lost wages portion of the claim, thus reducing the cost of that claim and in turn reducing the negative impact on your future workers’ compensation insurance premiums. In addition, if you utilize (accommodate) an employee who has a medically-imposed work restriction then it stands to reason that the organization is benefiting from his/her contribution to the productivity of the company.

Fraud Prevention Benefit – A common fraud involved with workers’ compensation claims is the use/abuse of medically-imposed work restrictions. The less than honest injured employee will “work the system” to ensure that work restrictions are written by the medical provider in order to stay at home/away from work. This affords the employee several opportunities to do anything, from painting the house, to going turkey hunting, to even picking up a second job and making extra money while not working the primary job. Accommodating a medically-imposed work restriction will get that employee back to work, unless he/she refuses to do so and then the insurance provider has the option to stop the wage replacement payments. Besides that, accommodating the work restriction will bring the employee back to work and back to formal supervision, which ensures that he/she will not violate the medically-imposed restrictions, at least for the time that he/she is at work.

Holistic Healing Benefit – For whatever reason, experience has shown that injured employees heal quicker when they are allowed to return to work. This can be attributed to the fact that their self esteem improves because they feel productive, or they benefit from the social aspects of time spent with co workers, or their personal routine remains relatively unchanged. Regardless, injured employees who are allowed to return to work as soon as possible heal quicker. The obvious conclusion then is to accommodate medically-imposed work restrictions to speed the recovery process.

Workforce Morale Benefit – As stated above, injured employees’ self esteem will improve because they feel productive and when their self esteem improves so does their morale. In addition, they receive the message that management is willing to make the extra effort to accommodate a medically-imposed work restriction because the employees are valued not only when they are at 100 percent, but also when they are not physically up to par. Then what about the balance of the workforce – how does accommodating medically-imposed work restrictions benefit their morale? Their morale is heightened by accommodating medically-imposed work restrictions because they are not asked to take up the slack for a co worker who is off work.

Some employers object to the use of modified duty, light duty, early return to work programs, or restricted duty. Two of the more common objections are based upon myths. A third reason is simply a lack of management motivation.

Objection #1 – Injured employees who are allowed to return to work and perform modified duty are more likely to get hurt, thus resulting in another workers’ compensation claim or even a lawsuit. Initially, this sounds like a valid excuse, but consider two facts. Medically restricted employees are performing specific jobs and tasks designed for their restrictions with proper training, equipment and supervision, just like any other employee. Why are they more likely to get hurt? And if they do sustain another injury or aggravate the current injury then workers’ compensation insurance is the remedy. By the way, if they are properly trained, equipped and supervised they are no more likely than any other employee to sustain an injury- so where is the logic behind this objection?

Objection #2 – Many employers believe that using modified duty will create morale problems with other employees. They believe that employees will see a peer performing “light duty” work and view him as getting off easy and not pulling his fair share of the load. This mindset is quickly and easily reversed when disgruntled co workers are assisted in visualizing the alternative, in which the injured employee is off work, makes roughly the same amount of income and does nothing to help get the work done.

Objection #3 – Accommodating medically-imposed work restrictions is just too much trouble. Granted, it does increase management’s workload, but the benefits of using modified duty outweigh this increased workload. Modified duty is a very simple process. No lengthy policy is needed; no forms are required. It simply takes knowledge of the tasks performed by employees (supervisors should know this in their sleep), a general idea of the physical requirements to perform those tasks and a commitment to cash in on the benefits that modified duty provides.

If you don’t want the hassle of accommodating medically-imposed work restrictions, then don’t let employees get injured! However, if they do get injured put on your thinking cap and devise a modified job that will allow them to return to work until their medical restriction is withdrawn. The company will benefit in numerous ways.