Transitional Duty Programs Help Firms Boost Morale, Cut Workers' Comp Costs

While it is common knowledge that prevention of workplace accidents or illness is the most effective way to lower the cost of a workers' compensation program, the goal is not just about saving money--it's about creating a safe work environment for employees.

Communicating this commitment to workers is an important component to managing a business and to the well-being of employees. Yet even with the very best safety programs in place and a well-communicated commitment to employees, on-the-job injuries and illnesses will still occur.

In fact, the National Safety Council estimates there are more than 80 million lost workdays due to occupational injuries or illness each year. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.2 million employees lose an average of seven days because of injury or illness.

Additional research shows that the longer an injured employee remains out of work, the less likely they are to return to work.

Establishing a managed care system designed to return injured employees to their original job as quickly as medically appropriate is a proven approach that delivers better outcomes to injured employees, their families, communities and their companies.

Because employees are a company's most valued asset, providing them with appropriate medical treatment to help them return to work as soon as possible is an investment in the company. It shows their health and well-being are valued.

Implementing a transitional duty program, or TDP, benefits everyone and can be an integral part of a retention strategy while improving company morale.

Transitional duty occurs when an employee can no longer perform their usual and customary job because of medical restrictions. The employee is given temporary transitional tasks based on their physical capabilities until they are able to return to their regular job.

Having well-defined TDP policies and procedures in place can ensure that an employee successfully returns to work.

Transitional duty pays off for everyone. Promoting the recovery of an injured employee through a TDP can accelerate the recovery process, reduce the chance of permanent disability and decrease the chance of re-injury.

A TDP focuses on progressively increasing work-specific activity levels in a supervised setting. This allows the employee to regain strength and endurance, while improving activity tolerances.

Employees performing transitional duty work until they return to their regular jobs are far more likely to regain a sense of well-being and real productivity more quickly. The TDP philosophy is to concentrate on the employee's ability, not on the disability.

KEY IS COMMUNICATION

Each employer, employee and injury is different and requires a unique approach, but the application of a TDP should be consistent. Communication is critical to an employee's successful transitional program.

How an injured employee is treated at the time of the injury, dur-ing rehabilitation and when they return to work can significantly minimize the human and financial impact of the injury.

Maintaining a relationship with the injured employee should take place throughout the rehabilitation process. The key to a successful TDP is a strong commitment to a consistent, fair implementation process, which can be demonstrated by assigning specific roles, responsibili-ties and accountabilities.

TDPs should be carefully designed to fit the skills, knowledge and capabilities of the re-covering employee so that the work can be accomplished safely. Good communication is essential and sends a clear message to the entire workforce about the value of a company's TDP.

Communication between the employer, employee and medical care provider is necessary to ensure that the TDP is an appropriate fit for the injured employee's needs. Any confusion or misunderstanding increases the potential of creating barriers or delays to the process.

To create a successful TDP, several steps are involved. They include:

o Clearly defining and communicating the goal of the program.

Create a written policy for the organization's TDP and establish goals to measure the success of the pro-gram.

Demonstrate a strong commitment to the program and communicate this dedication to all employees. Make sure employees understand the company's commitment to their safety, not just the dollar savings.

Be active and positive about the recovery process and work with medical care providers so they understand the benefits of the program. All communication should convey that the program is a priority for the com-pany as well as establish expectations of employees.

o Appoint a program coordinator and develop a team.

Assign a team member to take ownership of the TDP and actively promote the program through facilitating team meetings and handling communication between management and the transi-tional duty team.

o Educate all employees on the goals of the program.

Include employees in the functions of the program and their importance throughout the process. Train all new hires on the importance of the program and what to expect. Each em-ployee should be aware of their specific responsibility.

o Train managers on TDP goals.

Ensure that managers understand their role in the overall process and how to integrate the goals into their departmental pri-orities. Managers should be held accountable to set a positive attitude throughout the process.

Managers should be responsible for identifying transitional tasks, as well as developing "wish lists" of tasks that are important to the organization but may have a low priority.

Managers also should create detailed job descriptions for all available jobs--including the physical, mental and environmental demands required of each task. Job descriptions should be updated periodically.

o Educate medical providers.

Let medical providers know the organization's commitment to return injured workers to transitional employment. Medical providers should work with the team and understand the work environment.

o Evaluate the success of the TDP.

Compare results against previously established workers' comp risk management goals. Continually look for areas to improve the TDP, while communicating positive results to all employees. Rein-force the importance of your employees and their safety through your daily actions.

Implementing a TDP is practical and worth the effort. It is an effective disability management tool, which helps in avoiding unnecessary increases in workers' comp premiums.

Although everyone benefits from an employee's early and safe return to productive work, it is especially important to employees, their families and the community. A TDP creates a win-win situation for everyone.

Joseph J. Abriola, AIC, is vice president of claims and managed care for Key Risk, working out of its headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.

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