Light–duty tasks for injured employees

Employee injuries at commercial fruit and vegetable operations often result in lengthy and costly workers’ compensation claims. While some growers/operators treat such claims as part of “the cost of doing business,” others cut their losses by having a proactive return-to-work/light–duty program in place.

“Return-to-work programs help facilitate a timely and smooth transition back to work for injured employees. They also play a major role in controlling costs,” says Jeff Graham of LaPorte & Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based insurance agency.

Dr. Steve Kirkhorn, medical director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., adds, “Both the employee and the employer will benefit if it is recognized that light–duty work with gradually increasing activities will help keep an injured person active. For the employer, it means less lost time, and for the employee, it keeps the person busy physically and emotionally.”

Return-to-work/light–duty programs are not just for large commercial fruit and vegetable growers. Even a small grower can implement a return-to-work program and increase their company’s profitability by reducing lost time, reducing the length, and thus the cost, of workers’ compensation claims, and getting work done that might otherwise not get done by other busy employees.

What exactly is a return-to-work/ light–duty program and how do you set one up? A return-to-work program provides modified, temporary work for injured employees. The program is designed to facilitate the person’s return to regular duties as soon as they are released to full duty by a doctor. The injured employee is “matched” with certain light–duty tasks that his or her doctor feels are appropriate.

“It has been shown by numerous studies that an early return-to-work program results in the best long-term recovery after an occupational injury, as long as the injured body part is protected while allowing recovery. The biggest downside of being off work after an injury is deconditioning resulting in the loss of muscle tone. This actually slows down recovery and makes the person more susceptible to injuries,” says Kirkhorn, who is also an occupational medicine physician.

Despite this, it’s often quick and easy for a doctor to “prescribe” an automatic two weeks off of work. If the employer has not notified the doctor about the availability of a return-to-work/light–duty program, other options may not be apparent.

Setting up a light–duty program

Graham and Kirkhorn suggest taking these steps when setting up a return-to-work program:
• Establish a working relationship with a local clinic/physician(s) and with your workers’ compensation insurer. Make sure that any clinics/physicians to which you send injured employees understand the value of a strong return-to-work program.
• Ensure that job descriptions for all positions include the physical requirements of the job (such as stooping, bending, overhead reaching, lifting up to a certain amount of pounds, etc.). If you do not have written job descriptions for all positions, begin putting them into place.
• Talk with your crew leaders and other supervisors/managers about what tasks they would like to see done if there was enough time. These will help form the basis of a listing of potential light–duty tasks. Make sure that these tasks are not merely “busy work.” Your return-to-work program “needs to be sold as getting important work done that otherwise wouldn’t get done in order to make the injured person feel valued,” Kirkhorn says. “Expectations that this is a temporary position and that the medical provider expects healing to occur in whatever time is appropriate for the injury must be set early.”
• Develop a list of potential light–duty tasks, based on your supervisors’/managers’ input. These tasks may range from inspecting fire extinguishers or electrical cords to putting together written safety training materials.

Note: Remember that it’s important, even after developing this list, to match injured workers with these or other tasks based on the medical restrictions established by their doctors. For example, Kirkhorn says, a person “may need to be built up from very light lifting of 10 pounds to light lifting of 20 pounds to medium lifting over two to four weeks, depending on the injury. With a back injury, weights, bending and twisting are limited and gradually increased.”

• Ask your local medical provider or someone else from his/her clinic to visit your operation to see the type of work your employees do. If that is not possible, take digital photos of workers performing such tasks as planting, harvesting and packing. Then, forward those photos to your local clinic.
• Develop a short, written policy that states that you have a return-to-work/modified- duty program and that its purpose is to get injured employees back to work as soon as medically possible. State in the policy that all light–duty tasks are temporary in nature. Also, state that studies have shown that return-to-work programs are good for injured employees because they help speed the recovery process and return workers to their regular jobs and incomes sooner.

Getting help

There are a number of resources that can assist you in setting up a return-to-work program. One good place to start, Graham says, is with your insurer. “Very simply, an agricultural employer should ask his or her insurance agent for help with this program. Every insurer that [an] agent/broker works with should have information available online along with the necessary forms needed to put the program in place,” he says.

Local hospitals, clinics, doctors and/or occupational or physical therapists are also good sources of information, Kirkhorn says. They should have forms available that you can use. He also suggests checking with the consulting branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office in your state, especially if you have a small business.

“Many trade associations will have programs set up for companies to share ideas, and many will have a safety committee that can help,” Graham adds. “Even talk with a competitor. Remember, anything that helps the entire industry reduce its claim costs will benefit everyone in reduced insurance premiums.”

Here are some more tips:

• Make sure both your medical provider and your employees know that your return-to-work program is not meant as “punishment” for injured employees.
• Ask your medical provider for the usual anticipated healing time for a particular type of injury an employee has “so everyone is on the same page as far as reasonable return-to-work dates,” Kirkhorn says. “Asking if the provider is aware of the recommended duration of disability and healing times that are available through the Medical Disability Advisor, Official Disability Guidelines or the American College of Occupational and Environmental Practice will help assure you that the medical provider is aware of ‘best practices’ in return-to-work.”
• Train your supervisors to explain light–duty tasks in detail to the injured employee and to make sure he or she stays within the doctor’s medical restrictions.
• Wait until you get a doctor’s release before you return an injured employee to his or her regular duties.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer.

Potential light–duty tasks

Note: The following are some potential light–duty tasks at commercial fruit and vegetable operations. Be sure that you match an injured employee with a specific task or tasks based on his/her doctor’s medical restrictions. These restrictions may include such items as sitting only, lifting no more than 10 pounds, not bending or squatting, not reaching overhead, or limiting pushing or pulling.

• Inspecting first-aid kits, fire extinguishers, exit lights (in buildings) and other safety devices. Then, logging the date and time they were inspected and when any follow-up actions (such as refilling first-aid kits or replacing burned–out bulbs) were taken.
• Assisting with office work. This may include running errands/delivering light items, answering phones, cleaning out cabinets, dusting or organizing materials for meetings.
• Checking material data safety sheets (MSDSs) to make sure they are current, and if not, calling the manufacturer to get up-to-date MSDSs.
• Inspecting equipment for wear and tear and any missing safety devices. Then, logging any problems that are found.
• Cleaning and reorganizing areas such as the chemical storage room.
• Inspecting trucks and other vehicles for any obvious problems, including safety issues.
• Sweeping and hosing down the shop or garage floors. Also, sweeping other floors inside of buildings.
• Washing windows (in both vehicles and buildings).
• Washing dirty trucks.
• Leading brief “tailgate” safety training sessions.
• Cleaning restrooms.
• Painting.
• Filling out job or work order sheets.