Early Return to Work

The Early Return to Work (ERTW) program

Helping injured workers return to work as soon as medically possible is a high priority at L&I. Returning to work speeds an injured worker's recovery and reduces the financial impact of a workers' compensation claim on the worker, the employer and the workers' compensation system. The key is to act quickly. The Early Return to Work (ERTW) program encourages return‑to‑work options much earlier in the claims process, to everyone‛s benefit.

About return to work

L&I and employers use the expression return to work to describe taking steps to help an injured worker get back to work quickly, safely and, if necessary, with assistance. Options include:

  • Working shorter hours.
  • Performing transitional work. For example, a worker might perform some of her original duties or different duties with lighter physical demands. Performing a different job temporarily is another option.
  • Working in a modified job. "Job modification" means making adjustments to the work site, changing the job to meet the worker's limitations or providing tools, equipment or appliances that allow the worker to work within his limitations.

Why return to work is important

Numerous occupational health studies identify a connection between the duration of a workers' compensation claim and long-term loss of earning power. The longer injured workers remain off work, the harder it is for them to return to their original job and income. Partial wage-replacement (time-loss) benefits will never completely replace the full income. Lengthy time-loss claims drive up workers' compensation rates for the employer and increase the cost of operating the workers' compensation system.

After two months off work, a worker who earns $2,513 a month would lose $994 while on time-loss benefits.

L&I encourages prompt return to work

ERTW helps injured workers return to their jobs as soon as medically possible.

When an injured worker has received time-loss benefits for 14 days, his or her claim is assigned to the ERTW program. ERTW works with the injured worker, employer and medical provider to explore return-to-work options.

What ERTW does

Members of ERTW are experts in several fields. They are Vocational Services Consultants, Therapist Consultants and Nurse Consultants.

These experts are trained professionals who know how to talk with doctors and help employers implement medically appropriate return-to-work options.

Customer Service Specialists make the initial phone call to the injured worker and employer to find out if the worker has returned to work or if light-duty options exist.

Available resources for employers

ERTW develops specific services for the worker and employer; these may services include:

  • A Risk Management Specialist can explain the financial benefits of return to work. This specialist can show an employer how a workers' compensation claim affects the company's "experience factor" and premiums.
  • A safety consultant can provide an on-site consultation for an employer who wants to prevent future worker injuries by improving workplace safety.
  • Job modification funds from L&I may be available. These funds help an employer cover the costs of modifying a workstation to allow an injured worker to return to his or her original job.

Three successful return-to-work examples

Here are three examples of how L&I helped injured workers and employers.

Example one

Office worker. The worker injured her neck in a car accident that occurred during work-related travel. Limited neck motion and pain kept her from working full time. Job modification funds from L&I were used to buy a high-backed chair that supported her neck. The chair had a movable cushion she could lean her neck against that allowed the neck muscles to relax. Two weeks after getting the chair, the worker was able to resume full-time work.

Example two

Diesel mechanic. The worker severely injured his wrist when a tire he was repairing blew apart. In the first phase of his recovery, the worker could not do any work in the shop. Because the employer valued the worker's knowledge and didn't want to lose it, he created a temporary job where the worker provided technical advice to other mechanics from an office location near the shop. Later, the worker returned to the shop and was able to do some of the tasks of his regular job. The worker eventually resumed his full duties. He uses specially adapted tools to compensate for loss of strength and motion in the injured wrist.

Example three

Lumber mill worker. The job involved handled varying sizes and weights of wood products during a sorting process at the mill. The worker experienced a musculoskeletal injury to her hand. Careful medical assessment determined that the injury would likely flare up again if the worker resumed the same duties she had previously performed. The employer created a permanently modified job, where the worker handled only the smaller products, allowing her to keep working and avoid re-injury.

Additional information

Attending Doctor's Return-to-Work Desk Reference (F200‑002‑000).

Getting Back to Work, It's Your Job and Your Future (F200‑001‑000).

Employer's Return to Work Guide F(200‑003‑000).

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