Written by JobSiteCare, Mike Russo, CSP | March 29, 2024

This post was co-authored with Mike Russo, CSP Senior Vice President of JobSiteCare. 

For many workers, even after injuries heal and doctors give the green light, the specter of getting re-injured after returning to work lingers. Employers, too, face a delicate situation. A well-intentioned desire to bring a valued employee back into the fold can inadvertently lead to further setbacks. 

Unfortunately, the emphasis is often on the immediate aftermath of the injury, not the long-term process of recovery and a sustainable return to work. It’s not enough to just patch the worker up and send them back to the same environment. But how can employers ensure workers are truly ready? What safeguards can be put in place to protect against further setbacks? What if, despite all precautions, the worst happens and the injury flares up again, or a new one takes its place?

The process of recovery and reintegration demands a far more nuanced strategy than many organizations realize.
In this article, we will explore the essential measures and considerations of an effective return-to-work plan, return-to-work safety tips as well as key strategies to manage the risk of re-injury.

Key Takeaways

What to do when a worker is re-injured after returning to work? 

  • Provide immediate medical treatment and document the incident
  • File a new workers’ compensation claim. Even with an ongoing case, new incidents require separate documentation. 
  • Prioritize complete recovery. It is essential that workers should not return to the job until cleared by a medical professional.
  • Adopt a gradual return to work after an injury. It is often the safest approach to reduce the risk of re-injury. Modified duties or a reduced schedule can help workers regain strength and confidence.
  • Consider seeking professional help. Workers’ compensation and workplace safety specialists can provide guidance and help prevent issues from escalating, for both workers and employers.

What Happens If an Employee Gets Re-Injured After Returning To Work?

When an employee experiences a re-injury, it triggers a series of steps that are critical for both the employee’s welfare and the employer’s compliance with regulations. This situation demands immediate and appropriate workplace injury management action-plan to ensure that the well-being of the worker is prioritized while also safeguarding the employer against potential financial and reputational damage.

Immediate Medical Attention

Following a re-injury, it’s important to act quickly and decisively. The worker’s well-being should be the top priority, and that means ensuring they have access to necessary medical treatment. Immediate medical evaluation not only facilitates the employee’s recovery but also provides essential documentation that underpins the workers’ compensation claim. Medical records serve as a cornerstone, particularly when dealing with injuries that might not display immediate symptoms but could have long-term impacts on the employee’s health. Consider incorporating telemedicine in workers’ compensation injury case management to facilitate coordination and reduce the risk of claims caused by delayed medical care

Compliance with Reporting Procedures

Employers must activate their established workplace injury response procedure. This ensures they comply with both workers’ compensation and OSHA guidelines, safeguarding themselves against potential scrutiny and additional costs.

Seek Expert Advice

It’s also advisable for both parties to seek professional assistance at this stage. A workers’ compensation lawyer can advise the injured worker on their legal rights and help them pursue the benefits they are entitled to. For employers, consulting with workplace safety experts or legal advisors can help shed light on factors that may have contributed to the re-injury. These consultations offer guidance on how to adjust procedures to prevent similar incidents in the future, and they ensure all incident reporting and documentation is accurate on the employer’s side.

How to prevent workers from being re-injured after returning to work?

Returning a worker to their duties after an injury is a delicate process. To maximize the likelihood of return to work after injury and minimize the risk of re-injury, focus on these key areas:

Prioritize Healing and Qualified Care

Ensure the worker receives comprehensive medical treatment and rehabilitation designed to fully address their specific injury. Avoid rushing the healing process or returning the worker to the job before they are medically cleared. Rushing can set the worker up for failure and potentially worsen their condition.

Establish a Tailored Return-to-Work Program

Develop a return-to-work program closely aligned with the worker’s injury and recovery progress. This might involve gradually increasing duties, temporary work restrictions, or accommodations that ease the transition. Collaborating with medical experts throughout this process is vital.

Root Cause Analysis

Investigate what specifically triggered the initial injury. Were unsafe workplace conditions, a lack of proper training, or inadequate equipment factors? Proactively addressing the root cause helps to create a safer environment that minimizes the risk of re-injury, not just for the returning worker but for everyone on site.

Monitoring and Communication

Closely oversee the worker’s return to their duties. Maintain open lines of communication, allowing the worker to express any concerns or difficulties they encounter. Enlist expert guidance from medical professionals or workplace safety specialists to adjust the program and the workplace safety management system as needed.

On-Site Medical Support

Having qualified on-site medical personnel can make a tremendous difference with their ability to provide immediate assessments and ongoing evaluations. They are also able to help facilitate communication between the worker, the employer, and external healthcare providers.

At JobSiteCare, we build on this foundation with our Health and Wellness Specialists (HWSs). Their telemedicine connection to our board-certified doctors empowers more detailed evaluations and expert guidance. Additionally, our HWSs lead preventive measures like stretch and flex programs, potentially aiding in injury prevention across your workforce and a safe return to work after workers’ comp injury.

Benefits of Returning to Work After Injury

Employee Benefits:

  • Improved Recovery Process: Properly structured programs focus on complete healing under medical supervision. This minimizes the risk of long-term issues and helps the employee make a smoother recovery.
  • Stronger Sense of Security: They show that the employer cares about the employee’s well-being. This boosts morale and confidence, creating a more positive work experience.
  • Protection of Earning Potential: Returning to work, even at reduced capacity, lets the employee maintain some income. This financial stability lowers stress related to lost wages during the recovery period.
  • Skill Retention: A well-managed return-to-work program often includes modified assignments that allow the employee to keep their skills sharp. This minimizes setbacks and ensures a faster transition back to full working capacity.

Employer Benefits:

  • Cost Reduction: Return-to-work programs can significantly lower overall workers’ compensation costs. This occurs by reducing lost-time claims, limiting the need for temporary replacements, and potentially qualifying for lower insurance premiums due to improved safety records.
  • Maintained Productivity: Helping the employee safely return to the workforce means the company can maintain better staffing levels. This avoids the workflow issues that happen when positions remain unfilled for a long time.
  • Improved Workplace Culture: Supporting employee recovery shows a commitment to the workforce. This can lead to higher employee morale, potentially resulting in better productivity and less employee turnover.
  • Focus on Safety: Effective programs often analyze the cause of the initial injury and implement changes to prevent similar incidents. This proactive approach makes the workplace safer for everyone, minimizing further accidents and injuries.

Challenges and risks of return-to-work programs

While well-structured programs offer significant benefits, it’s important to remain aware of potential challenges that could lead to setbacks or re-injury.

Returning to work too soon

One of the most common pitfalls is rushing an employee back to work before they have sufficiently healed. Pressure to fill a vacant position or a misconception that an injury is “minor” can result in returning the worker to their original duties too soon, dramatically increasing the risk of re-injury. This is why it is so important to strictly adhere to medical recommendations regarding recovery timelines and work restrictions.

Mismanagement of light duties

Return-to-work programs often involve modified or “light” duties. However, even with the best intentions, mismatched or vaguely defined light-duty assignments can exacerbate an existing injury. If modified tasks still put strain on the injured body part or area, or if they require skills the employee hasn’t fully regained, it can create conditions ripe for re-injury or even create new ones. Close collaboration with medical professionals is crucial when designing these temporary work assignments. 

Legal and indemnity risks

If a re-injury occurs, the employer could face increased workers’ compensation challenges and costs, potential lawsuits, and heightened scrutiny from regulatory bodies. Thorough documentation of the return-to-work process and adherence to established procedures can help mitigate these risks.

Overlooked Mental Health Impact

Workplace injuries often carry an emotional toll – anxiety about returning to the same environment, fear of re-injury, and frustration with limitations. If an employee’s mental health is not considered and addressed, their ability to focus and perform safely can be compromised, again increasing their vulnerability. Creating an atmosphere of open communication and offering support resources can help address these mental health challenges, promoting a smoother and safer reintegration process.

Conclusion

Returning to work after an injury requires an approach that is both effective and considerate. JobSiteCare differentiates itself through its medically directed programs that ensure a comprehensive and supportive framework for employees on their path to reintegration. By combining telemedicine with the expertise of on-site medical professionals, we provide workplace injury management services designed to address both physical recovery and psychological well-being. Schedule a consultation to learn how we can transform your return to work policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will returning to work too early cause a re-injury? 

It may. Returning to work before an injury has fully healed dramatically increases the risk of re-injury. The body needs sufficient time to recover, and pushing those limits can lead to setbacks, prolong the recovery process, and potentially create new injuries. It’s essential to follow medical advice and return only when cleared by a doctor. 

What happens if employees can’t return to work after injury? 

If an employee’s injury prevents them from returning to their previous position or any suitable work within the company, they might be eligible for long-term disability benefits through their workers’ compensation insurance. Laws vary by state, so it’s important to consult with a legal professional specializing in workers’ compensation when faced with this situation. 

What is the employer’s responsibility when employees get re-injured after returning to work? 

When an employee gets re-injured, the employer holds similar responsibilities as with the initial workplace injury. This includes initiating injury reporting procedures, facilitating injured worker care, and potentially revising the return-to-work plan. It’s also advisable to consult with experts to determine if any workplace conditions contributed to the re-injury and if corrective actions are necessary. 

Will returning to work affect the workers’ compensation claim? 

In most cases, a successful return to work will eventually lead to the closure of a workers’ compensation claim. Depending on the extent of the injury and if there are any permanent limitations, the claim may close with or without an additional settlement. 

What are the factors affecting the return to work after injury? 

Several factors affect a return to work after injury, including the severity of the original injury, the type of work involved, the quality and accessibility of medical care, and the level of support and accommodations provided by the employer.