Leverage 3 Different Types of Transitional Work Programs

A successful transitional duty / return to work program is much more than having an injured employee answering the telephone or sweeping the floors.  Unfortunately, too many employers see a transitional duty program, also known as a return to work program as a “make work” situation for both the employer and the injured employee. This approach to a return to work program often ends in frustration for both employer and employee.


Having the right return to work attitude, as well as understanding the various transitional work programs are the first steps to a successful program.



Alternate or Light Duty Programs


Alternate or light duty programs allow employees to work at less demanding jobs until they are physically able to resume their original work duties. For example, an employee who normally does physically demanding labor could work in a more sedentary capacity, such as answering telephones or taking product inventories



Modified Duty Program


The second type of transitional work program is the modified duty program, where injured employees’ original jobs are modified through engineering alterations of the workstation. Employers use these programs to prevent aggravation of the injury. For example, an employer could install seats with added back supports and foot rests to relieve discomfort for an employee with an injured back.



Work Hardening


“Work hardening” is the third type of transitional work program. In these programs, employees perform their usual job-related tasks in steps of increasing difficulty until they regain the physical ability needed to perform their original jobs. This allows the injured employee to remain at work, although at reduced hours. Sometimes, employees in a work hardening program will be placed in a simulated off-site work environment. Here, they perform simulated assignments closely approximating the tasks they perform at their real jobs. Many vendors offer these work simulation programs.



Additional Return to Work Considerations


Transitional work positions can be located in the same or a different department, or even in another company or operating division. Some employees perform transitional work program duties in the community as a volunteer in an employer-sponsored volunteer activity, or in a commercial vocational rehabilitation return-to-work center.   In these instances, employers should provide transportation for the employee to the work facility to demonstrate continued involvement and concern for his or her recovery.



During the return-to-work process, companies need to consider the employee’s physical limitations. If injured workers exceed their physical abilities, they may experience a recurrence of the injury causing unnecessary pain and suffering for the employee and needless additional workers’ compensation costs for their employers. Also, although employers can use transitional work programs for temporary illnesses and injuries, it is important to remember all absence and disability programs must be integrated with the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act..



For additional information on workers’ compensation cost containment best practices, register as a guest for our next live stream training.


Author Michael Stack, Principal, COMPClub, Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their work comp costs by 20% to 50%.  He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is founder of COMPClub, an exclusive member training program on workers compensation cost containment best practices. Through these platforms he is in the trenches on a working together with clients to implement and define best practices, which allows him to continuously be at the forefront of innovation and thought leadership in workers’ compensation cost containment. Contact: mstack@reduceyourworkerscomp.com.



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  1. Michael, thanks for your thoughtful comments on transitional duty programs. I’d like to add some comments relative to the Modified Duty option. In addition to engineering alterations of the workstation, the job can be modified by allowing co-workers to assist with certain tasks – for example, with lifting some things can be a 2-person lift. I’ve also seen a temporary change in tools or equipment until the employee is back to full duty. For the work hardening option, one advantage to carrying it out in a clinical setting is the ease of performing graded activities compared to attempting gradation in the actual work environment. Particularly when it comes to materials handling and endurance/work tolerance.

    In order to effectively implement a transitional duty program, fairly detailed job analysis is critical so that the employer has a clear understanding of the physical demands of the jobs. A return-to-work fitness for duty or functional test can be particularly helpful for objectively determining the employee’s physical abilities and comparing them to the job demands. Not only will the fitness for duty test tell the employer whether this person is ready to return to work, the results of testing can be used to establish program goals and monitor progress. Periodic re-testing and/or repeat testing at the end of the work hardening program can also insure that the employee is ready to return to full duty.

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