Someone asked, “what are the benefits of having a light duty program?” It’s a really good question, and I suppose you would get different answers depending on who you ask. While I fully realize light duty programs are a cost saving mechanism for employers, I don’t believe these programs are inherently evil. I won’t bore you with the research, but it seems well accepted the longer an injured worker is away from employment, the more devastating the financial impact on that worker and their family. Staying connected to your work place, and returning to some type of daily work activity as soon as possible, can be much better than long-term disability. Those who have a strong work ethic and a sense of self which is closely tied to employment, can avoid the feelings of loss and hopelessness which come with losing that employment or ability to work.
However, like everything else in life, light duty programs run the gambit from good, to bad, to really ugly. There are those which are designed and intended to do all the right things; keep the worker connected to employment, offer meaningful work at fair pay, while affording dignity, respect and security. And, there are those whose main goal seems to be to create such a hostile work environment that the worker will quit, or be set up for termination. The question is, how do we create incentives for the former and discourage the latter? How do we create a culture where employers and employees both see the benefit of working together to insure quick, meaningful, and permanent return to work after an industrial injury or occupational disease?
I don’t mean that to be a rhetorical question – I really am looking for ideas. I think we have an opportunity in this State to move forward with productive changes which improve return to work and reduce long-term disability, like the Vocational Improvement Project which is currently in year 2 of a 5 year pilot. I’m not talking about redefining what is or is not an injury, or allowing workers to settle claims for a lump sum rather than holding employers accountable. These maneuvers may reduce costs, but they do not address return to work or reduce long-term disability. We don’t need to shift the problem out of sight, we need to solve it.
From a workers perspective, what will encourage a return to work? From an employer perspective, what reduces the risk of retaining a worker who has sustained an injury? How do we reshape the trajectory of our work lives so that as we age work duties become less physically demanding, thereby reducing the prevalence of injury and occupational disease? Our ageing work force has value, with skills and knowledge that can and should be used. How do we harness that skill and knowledge when their bodies start to fail them?
Light duty programs are one tool which can be used to reduce long-term disability. The trick is to insure it is used for the right reasons at the right time. The bigger trick is to put more tools in the toolbox.