Return to Work Program

Return to Work Program

Safety professionals try to prevent injuries from occurring as much as possible. Sometimes, though, an incident will still occur that causes a worker to be injured or an illness can affect a worker. When this happens, the recovery process may take some time. At this point an employer must be able to accommodate the worker. A return to work program allows the employer, the employee and the employee’s doctor to determine what duties an employee can perform and how long they need to be on modified duties.

Modified Duties
Return to Work Program

Why Programs are Needed

After a worker has been injured, they will need time to recover. Whether from a minor injury or a serious injury, the sooner they can get back to work the better to help them financially and emotionally. This may also help them in the recovery process. Return to work programs form a basis that will allow an employer go through the steps to find the appropriate modified work and determine how long the worker needs to be on it.

There are also financial reasons for having a return to work program. While this may seem a bit sneaky, a return to work program does allow the company to save on its’ workers’ compensation premiums by reducing the number of lost time days caused by the incident. This may not occur every time, but it should be remembered.

There is also the legal requirement for having a return to work system in place. In some cases, a worker may not be able to go back to their original job at all, so it may be necessary to find another job within the organization for them to do. The order of desirability for this is:

  • A modified job in the same workplace
  • A different job in the same workplace
  • A similar job in a different workplace
  • A different job in a different workplace

It is also important to remember that return to work plans have a fixed duration. If a permanent plan is needed, then this is known as accommodation.

A Team Effort

Like other aspects of a safety program, a return to work program requires a team effort to be effective. The WCB of Nova Scotia lists the following partners for a return to work program:

  • Employers
  • Workers
  • WCB Case worker
  • Relationship manager and WCB Consultant
  • Health care providers
  • Union Representative (when applicable)

The partners each form an important part in ensuring a worker is able to get back to work. Together they can help create a plan based on the worker’s functional abilities.

Transitional and Modified Duties

After determining the abilities of the employee, transitional duties can be created. This can be anything from doing inventory and other paperwork, to doing small jobs in the shop, such as cleaning. The important thing to remember when creating transitional work is that meaningful and productive. As the worker continues his/her physical recovery, their duties can be changed based on their abilities. All transitional duties should be closely related to the original job as possible.

Time frames need to be established for transitional work. Through consultation with the worker’s doctor and the worker, the company must be able to determine how long the modified duties will last. Regular medical appointments need to be permitted and the reports must be submitted to the company in order to gauge the steps in the recovery process. Return to work plans must also show an effort to lessen the impact of barriers (i.e. equipment or training). Finally, the worker needs to sign off on the plan before it starts.

Developing a Successful Return to Work

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and WCB of Nova Scotia both list what they feel are the keys to developing effective return to work programs. Whether you are looking at the federal or provincial requirements, they do agree on what should be included:

  • There is an assigned coordinator for the program
  • Transitional work that is properly planned and selected
  • Effective communication between employer and health care providers, with the workers consent
  • There is a strong commitment to safety by all workplace parties.

Benefits of a Return to Work Program

Returns to work programs provide many benefits for both the company and the employee who is returning to work. The Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia lists the following:

For Companies:

  • Allows a skilled and experienced worker to continue as a valuable resource for the company
  • Minimizes lost productivity
  • Reduces costs of finding and retaining new employees
  • Ensures communication between employer and the worker
  • Reduces risk of similar injury after hazards are identified and controlled
  • Maintain morale
  • Reduce the claims cost which can reduce WCB premiums

For the Workers:

  • Reduces or eliminates lost earnings
  • Helps the worker stay active
  • Minimizes impact or worker’s family
  • Allows worker to focus on what they “can do” rather than what they “can’t do”
  • Maintain a sense of confidence and value
  • Allows the worker to stay in contact with co-workers and the workplace
  • Keep work in employee benefit programs


An effective return to work program should be as much a part of the health and safety program for a company as an incident reporting program. This is because it allows a return to a normal life for the worker and the company. Effective communication is key, because all parties must sign off on the return to work plan that is created for the worker.

The other important thing is to remember to let employees know that a return to work program exists at their workplace. This will be asked by the medical staff and it is a question that does show up a COR audits. Promotion is a key part of the program. It is also important to plan to stay safe.


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