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‘Work hardening’ can help return injured workers to job sites quickly

Eric Messer

Eric Messer

Let’s face it, construction is a dangerous industry. Work hardening can help return an injured employee to the job quickly – reducing lost wages and saving you money.

Work hardening is like work conditioning in its use of physical therapy and occupational therapy to help an injured employee return to work. It’s different, though, in that it provides employees with advanced vocational or psychological assistance, or rehabilitation, to help them return to work-related activities.

The benefits of having a strong work-hardening program comes in the form of quicker recoveries, reduced chances of aggravating an injury, and a better understanding of how to prevent future injuries. To maximize these benefits, a work-hardening program should be well thought out and should have solid processes in place in all three of its phases.

Phase one: Evaluation of the candidate

Having a process in place to decide if work hardening is the appropriate course of action for an injured worker is central to getting employees back to work quickly and efficiently.

The evaluation can usually be broken down into four categories:

  1. Physical – Through the use of medical evaluations, ask yourself: Is a particular employee fit enough to enter the program? When determining the fitness of a worker, medical professionals usually evaluate strength, endurance, range of motion and mobility.
  2. Functional – A functional-capacity evaluation is usually conducted by therapists to better quantify employees’ ability to perform in a work setting.
  3. Vocational – In cases in which the same or similar job is no longer feasible, an examination of the employee’s transferrable skill is conducted to learn how a company can still make use of an employee.
  4. Psychological – In order to complete customization, it is important to understand the attitudes of employees. Have they got any fears about returning to work or any barriers preventing them from completing recovery?

Phase two: Development of the program

Injuries affect different employees in different ways. So your work-hardening program shouldn’t be a “cookie-cutter” system. Customization should be done according to what is most appropriate for workers while keeping three goals in mind:

  • Returning the worker to employability.
  • Informing workers about how to prevent future injuries.
  • Dealing with obstacles that could impede their return to work.

This is when you work with a service provider, since finding the right one is central to the success of any program. Collectively, you both should be able to make such a program is a good fit for anyone who enters it.

Phase three: Application of the program

After you have worked with a service provider, and the basic processes have been set up, you can begin to enter workers into the program. Communication is essential, as you are relying upon a third party to administer effective treatments to your injured worker. Tracking the progress of each employee, and measuring their progress toward predetermined, measureable outcomes, is critical. Injuries affect different employees in different ways.

There are five measurements you should track:

  1. What percentage of employees are successfully returning to work?
  2. What percentage of employees have been re-injured or have aggravated a previous injury?
  3. How much is this program costing and how does that cost compare with that of doing nothing?
  4. How long is the average employee off work during the program?
  5. How long is the average employee off work per job duty?

A solid and well-built work-hardening program is an innovative approach to employee rehabilitation. By undergoing customized therapy and concentrating on work-related activities, employees are able to build confidence in themselves while learning how to prevent future injuries. Through the combination of physical and occupational therapy, job simulation activities, and further vocational and psychological therapy, workers who don’t fit into traditional programs can be on a fast and permanent track to returning to work. They are able to earn more while you pay less.

Eric Messer is a construction-industry business and risk consultant at the Milwaukee office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. He can be reached at 262-797-6281 or [email protected]

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