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Effective Return to Work (RTW) Programs

Companies of all sizes should have return-to-work (RTW) programs in place. When an injured employee makes a seamless transition back to full duty, everybody wins.

Ideally, RTW programs (sometimes called modified duty, light-duty, and transitional duty) are launched with extensive training in how to avoid injury in the first place. The best time to implement a program is before someone strains a back, takes a hard fall, or inhales toxic fumes.

Still, it’s never too late to put safety first.


Workers who were hurt or made ill on the job need time to get up to speed. Good programs help employees ease back into full productivity without reinjury.

During recovery, light-duty jobs are modified to accommodate physical limitations.

It’s true that RTW programs require planning, collaboration, and training. They take time to develop. But, their success is a product of trial and error.

However, companies that design effective programs are never sorry that they did. Boosting productivity, morale and the bottom line always pays off.

Benefits for Employers

The biggest perk for employers is a reduction in Workers’ Compensation costs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, payments to injured or sickened workers approached a whopping $40 billion in 2015.

Injured employees who return to work even part-time collect fewer benefits.

Also, Workers’ Compensation premiums are often the largest expense after payroll. Keeping accidents and injuries to a minimum keeps premiums in line.

Effective RTW programs also limit fraudulent and abusive claims. If your boss were genuinely interested in your recovery and accommodated you with light-duty, wouldn’t you be less inclined to scam him?

Along the same lines, private investigation is rarely called for when employees get back to work quickly.

Even a little productivity is better than none, and retaining good workers saves a fortune in hiring and training costs.

For all these reasons, RTW programs make good business sense.

Benefits for Employees

Continuing to earn income — even if wages are temporarily reduced for light-duty — keeps food on the table. There are also physical and psychological benefits.

Private investigation usually exposes injured workers who attempt to cheat the system, but it sometimes reveals just how isolating and depressing a serious injury can be.

Experts agree that returning to work, even on a limited basis, speeds recovery. Purpose, socialization, and a sense of one’s own value have a positive impact on health.

Making RTW Programs Effective

The hardest part is getting started, but employers who drag their feet could soon find themselves out of business.

It’s a collective effort. If you’re in safety, risk management, Workers’ Compensation or law, business owners and executives could use your help.

Here are some factors that distinguish truly effective programs:

Safety is ingrained in the workplace culture

What does that look like?

The best programs are a valued part of the company culture just like teamwork or work-life balance.

Time and financial resources are invested in safety. Training is thorough and unrushed. Safety is the first item on the agenda of every meeting.

Safety is a condition of employment, and there are consequences for violating rules. Workers are comfortable pointing out unsafe conditions or behavior.

Licenses and certifications are current. There are high standards for documenting injuries.

Not surprisingly, injury rates are low or nonexistent.

Everyone is on board

Management is 100% committed, and workers at all levels know that their superiors embrace safety as a core value.

It takes a natural leader with an engaging personality to make that happen.

Hazards are identified and addressed

New companies identify jobs, equipment, or workspaces with high potential for injury. Older companies review their history to pinpoint the most common injuries and find out how they occurred.

The RTW team brainstorms about ways to protect workers in those positions. Certain jobs may be modified. Safer equipment might be installed. Training may be reevaluated.

This is a great time to ask at-risk employees for suggestions.

Thorough job descriptions are published

Existing job descriptions include duties, physical requirements, and functional requirements such as standing or heavy lifting.

Planners have even thought of ways to convert existing jobs to transitional duty.

For instance, a kitchen steward with a back injury shouldn’t lift 50-pound bags of rice, but there are plenty of onions to chop and potatoes to peel. There may even be bigger fish to fry.

Jobs have also been cobbled together for alternate duty. Ideas include oiling machinery, taking inventory, labeling shelves, answering phones, ordering supplies, making copies, and monitoring security video.

These transitional jobs may be rough sketches, so to speak, but they’re down on paper as possibilities anyway. That shows employees that management will do its best to accommodate them.

RTW-minded managers also consider injured workers for vacant positions.

There’s a designated liaison

A compassionate, organized person who likes working with people acts as a liaison between injured workers, managers, and doctors. Someone who hopes to partner with a doctor is ideal. Third-party administrators (TPAs) can be that solution – there to keep in close contact with all parties and keep the program moving forward.

RTW policies are published and distributed

Company policy clearly defines expectations for both managers and workers. Everyone has a copy.

Workers know how and when to notify the company of injury. Contact numbers are provided.

Employees are familiar with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Where workers’ compensation is concerned, they understand both their rights and their accountability.

Effective RTW programs are fair to everyone.

Evaluation metrics are in place

RTW coordinators track results – bigwigs in corner offices dig that stuff.

Executives or small-business owners comply with municipal, state and federal laws

Compliance is a lot more complicated than most suits or entrepreneurs know. The importance of working with an attorney can’t be overstated.

The High Cost of Complacency

The cost of keeping workers safe and active is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of settlements, high turnover rates and lost productivity.

Employers simply can’t afford to be complacent.

Workers’ Compensation Glossary of Acronyms:

Acronyms. SMH.

Having been a private investigator in the Workers’ Compensation (WC) industry for almost 15 years, IMHO, I come across quite a bit of industry jargon – an alphabet soup of acronyms only trumped by the federal government.

If you’re new to the industry, or need a refresher, here’s a list of acronyms YSK:

AOE/COEArising Out Of Employment/In the Course Of Employment
AWWAverage Weekly Wage
BWCBureau of Workers’ Compensation
DOL/DOI/DOA Date of Loss/Date of Injury/Date of Accident
EMR/MOD RATE Experience Modification Rate/Experience rate used in determining WC premiums
EOREmployer of Record
FROIFirst Report of Injury
ICIndustrial Commission
IMEIndependent Medical Exam
IWInjured Worker
LDLight Duty
LTLost Time
MCOManaged Care Organization
MDOSModified Duty Onsite
Med OnlyMedical Claim Only, No Lost Work Time
MEDCO 14Ohio’s specific Physician’s Report of Workability
MMIMaximum Medical Improvement
NCMNurse Case Manager
PIPrivate Investigator
PORPhysician of Record
PTPhysical Therapy
PTDPermanent Total Disability
RTWReturn To Work
SISelf Insured
SIUSpecial Investigations Unit
STDShort Term Disability
TPAThird Party Administrator
TTDTemporary Total Disability
Voc/Voc RehabVocation Rehabilitation (training to do another job)
WCWorkers’ Compensation

Designing Workplace Safety Incentive Schemes That Work

As a private investigator, I’ve seen first-hand the costs of workplace accidents, and the challenge of trying to reduce them.

While my role focuses primarily on eliminating fraud, waste and abuse on the back-end of claims, increasingly, employers are looking for ways to address workplace safety issues before they arise, not least through incentive-based schemes.

In this post, let’s look further at those incentive mechanisms, and the factors likely to determine whether they succeed or fail.

Carrots and Sticks

Numerous academic studies have examined how incentive-based mechanisms can drive behavioral change. But we see it just as readily in everyday life: the parent trying to encourage their child to behave; the supermarket loyalty card encouraging us to spend; the health insurance policy that rewards healthy eating.

In a workplace safety context, the main objective and benefit of incentive-based schemes is to cut workplace accidents. This has clear financial and reputational benefits for an organization. But many say the benefits extend further, to improvements in employee morale and engagement.

Of course, not everyone is convinced. Some believe incentive schemes encourage underreporting and cover-ups. Or that they lead to ‘box-ticking’, with employees focusing solely on what is needed to gain a reward, without buying in to the underlying reasons for good safety practices.

Designing your scheme to succeed.

What is clear is that an incentive scheme’s design is central to whether – in the short- and longer-term – it succeeds.

But what makes a well-designed scheme?

One piece of the puzzle

Any compliance scheme is likely to be successful only if it is built on solid foundations: on processes, systems and training that promote compliance and reinforce the importance of workplace safety. But I believe incentive schemes are at their best when they’re part of a package of complementary accident-reduction measures and are integrated into the organization’s broader values and risk management, thereby reiterating to employees that management regards workplace safety as being just as important as other commercial risks.

Head to Toe Engagement

As with much in the modern workplace, ‘top-down’, visible senior-level buy-in is vital.

Vital, but not sufficient.

Rather, successful schemes tend to be those that also involve some element of ‘bottom up’ and give employees themselves a role in the scheme’s design.

This can create a sense of ‘employee ownership’ over the scheme, as well as showing the organization’s willingness to listen to their views. But most critically, it increases the likelihood that the scheme focuses on the things that actually incentivize good practice by employees (not just what management thinks would incentivize them!)

Aligning incentives

Incentive schemes live or die by the incentives they create.

Creating the right alignment of incentives is no easy task, particularly in large, diverse organizations. But a good start is always to ask yourself the right questions:  what behavior are you trying to promote; when will rewards for ‘good behavior’ be given, and what rewards will they be?

The right behaviors

Ask yourself:

  • What behavioral changes are needed, and where?
  • What incentives need to be created to drive that change?
  • Are those incentives the same for all my staff?
  • How can I incentivize ‘bad apples’ to meet basic standards, but also reward ‘star pupils’ who go above and beyond? 
  • How can I avoid my scheme being ‘gamed’, incentivizing underreporting, or becoming a ‘box-ticking exercise’?

Whether you employ five people or 5,000, it’s these questions that hold the keys to designing a scheme that truly works for you organization.

The right thresholds

Getting the criteria for rewarding behavior ‘just right’ is that classic Goldilocks problem. Too tough and employees may think there’s so little chance of reaching the targets that it’s not worth trying to achieve them at all. Too easy and there’s no real incentive for employees to push beyond that low bar.

The right rewards

Choosing the right reward is vital. If an employee doesn’t – for whatever reason – value the ‘prize’ being offered – what motivation do they have to try and obtain it?

It may be tempting to turn immediately to monetary payments, rather than prizes that not everyone might value (sports tickets, alcohol, etc).  But cash incentives come with their own particular challenges. For example, if employees see them as really just a payment for work (or, worse still, a ‘bribe’) they might actually see the scheme as something negative – just as you might genuinely appreciate a friend’s offer to drive you to the airport, but be somewhat offended if they simply offered to pay for a cab to take you there instead.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t myriad potentially effective alternatives, though. One-off ‘experiences’, prize draws, a donation to the employee’s chosen charity, a paid afternoon off – each could work.

Your best bet? Think about your employees. Listen to what they tell you they value.

Schemes in practice – being clear, playing fair

Even the best designed schemes can come to nothing if implemented poorly.

Two aspects of such implementation that studies suggest are particularly important are transparency and fairness.

Transparency is, in part, about little things like publicly celebrating those receiving rewards. But mainly, it’s about ensuring the scheme is well publicized and that its key parameters are clear to employees – What are my targets? Who decides if I’ve met them? On what basis? –

Fairness, on the other hand, focuses on the almost primal importance we place – inside and outside work – on feeling like we’ve been treated fairly. That instinct makes it critical that any scheme is applied – and is seen to be applied – consistently, and without bias or arbitrariness.  

If employees don’t believe they have a ‘fair shot’ at a reward, it not only disincentivizes them from trying to attain it, it risks breeding a more general resentment that could have far wider effects on employee engagement.

None of this is easy.

Incentives schemes aren’t a ‘silver bullet’. 

But if well-designed, and carefully implemented, they can certainly make their mark. Not just on an organization’s safety incident rates, but on its reputation, its employee relations, and – ultimately – its bottom line.

Do NOT Call Me If…

In the past, I’ve written about what private eyes can do. But some still do not know.

Many ask if I will do illegal or unethical things. I won’t.

Stop calling me.

In fact, do NOT call me if:

1. You want a hidden GPS unit installed on your spouse’s car. It’s illegal unless the car is owned by you (the person making the request) and you’ve signed my contract allowing me to do it.

2. You want me to wiretap a phone or bug your house. Under Federal law, at least one party must consent to recorded phone calls. It’s why you hear, “This call may be recorded for quality assurance or training purposes,” on many customer service lines.

3. You want to know how much money is in a person’s bank account. Under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, accessing bank account information as a third-party without consent is illegal. Meaning, I won’t use social engineering, pretexting, or phishing to access this information.

4. You want a credit report or credit score. It’s illegal for a private investigator to access credit history without a consent form. For employment and tenant screening purposes, the Fair Credit Report Act allows access, but without a signed release, no luck.

5. You want me to friend-request someone on social media to access their private information. If it’s not publicly available, we won’t do it – it’s an invasion of privacy.

6. You want videotape inside a private location. Again, an invasion of privacy. Filming through a house’s window or while on private property is off-limits. Public venues like grocery stores, sporting events, parks, or shopping malls are okay.

7. You want medical records. Ever heard of HIPAA?

8. You want access to private info on a cell phone. Again, without consent, I can’t get access to texts, emails, phone call logs, pictures, or anything else.

9. You want me to arrest someone. Isn’t this obvious? I’m not a police officer. In fact, it’s illegal for private eyes to carry badges, impersonate law enforcement officers, or even allude to being cops.

10. You want me to break into private property. It’s called trespassing and it’s illegal.

11. You want me to compromise my integrity. In addition to running a successful business, I’ve been practicing investigative work for over 12 years, I have a secret clearance and a Master’s degree.

My clients include law firms, insurance agencies, risk management companies, and specific individuals.

Most importantly, I’m a father of two boys. If you think you can get me to do something illegal that’ll tarnish my reputation with them, think again.

Don’t Call.

Old School vs. New School

REVISED: You can’t succeed as a private eye if you’re not constantly learning. Ditch some of your old school ways and find the new stuff!