In the high hazard world of crane and rigging, workers' compensation costs are soaring. On the job injuries threaten to drive the already high workers' compensation rates even higher and have crane company executives all across the country scratching their heads as they search meticulously for a solution. Safety programs are restructured and revamped with an emphasis on preventive measures. And while this focus is certainly significant, after all, not having injuries in the first place makes disability management quite effortless, an often overlooked yet undeniably essential component of true risk management is an effective return to work (RTW) program.

After four years of operating a light duty RTW program, the Long Island Railroad reduced the number of its employees who were out of work for more than a year from 244 to eight, out of a total of 7,000 employees. Well planned RTW programs can return injured workers to the workplace in a constructive and timely matter and help companies avoid costly litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). RTW programs are one strategy available to employers to control and maintain workers compensation costs and protect the valuable investment your company has made in its human resources.

Win-win program

RTW programs are beneficial to the employee in that they contribute to their increased self esteem, financial independence, and overall viability in the job market. In short, RTW programs are a win-win proposition for both the employer and the employee.

In 1932 Alaska Airlines operated a single air route between Anchorage and Bristol Bay, Alaska. By 1934 the company had expanded to 22 aircraft operating in the state. In the 1970s the airline began expanding into the lower western states. Today Alaska Airlines has a route system spanning 40 cities and three countries and carries more than 12 million customers per year. With more than 10,000 employees and direct workers compensation costs estimated at roughly $10 million dollars a year, the mid 1980s found the company targeting the need to return employees to work through a strategic RTW program.

“When an employee is off work, there is not only a direct cost, but also indirect costs that can equate to multiples of your direct costs,” explains Donna Egeland, manager of workers' compensation and disability accommodations for Alaska Airlines. “If workers' compensation costs $10 million a year, then there are also significant indirect costs for replacing workers, training, administrative tasks and so forth. We're able to save a portion of these costs by keeping employees at work.”

Experts estimate that RTW programs such as light duty, yield a three-to-one return on the employer's investment. New hires may be a practicable way to supplement the void left by injured employees but nothing can fully replace the skill, experience, working relationships and historical knowledge of a long time employee. New hires take time and money to train and it may be years before they completely fit in with their coworkers or the company's culture.

The crane and rigging industry is full of pride. We take pride in the equipment that puts food on our tables, pride in the business we've built up, oftentimes, from the ground level, and pride in people who help make our companies successful. What Alaska Airlines found out first hand in the eighties was what researchers had been theorizing for years: most injured employees want to get back to work.

While workers compensation benefits can be generous - up to two thirds of the employee's standard paycheck - it is still only a percentage of what he or she would normally make. By having an effective RTW program in place, companies can, by and large, help improve employees' self esteem and help them gain greater financial independence than if they were to adopt lifestyles dependent on disability benefits.

Effective tool

RTW programs are also, perhaps, the most effective tool in keeping the worker associated, as well as connected, with the workplace. “If an employee is off work for more than two weeks, the likelihood is it will be about ten times harder for that person each week to come back to work,” Egeland says. “In addition, when an employee is injured or ill, you should not ignore emotions such as ‘the employer is angry with me.' The magnitude of these negative feelings increases daily.”

The RTW program can not only counteract those negative feelings, it can also demonstrate the emphasis and value your company puts on its employees. Showing your employees that you care about their well being, both in their healthy vocational recovery as well as their financial one, you lessen their feelings of alienation, reduce the severity of permanent impairment, and diminish recuperation time.

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