Implementing a Return-to-Work (RTW) Program

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A detailed return-to-work (RTW) program can benefit both employees and employer.Even when an organization is in full compliance with federal and state occupational health and safety rules and regulations, work-related injuries and illnesses can occur. That’s why creating and enforcing a detailed return-to-work (RTW) program that benefits both employees and employer is essential. In most companies, the workplace safety expert is the one who makes these programs happen.

Employees need to know exactly what will happen to them and their jobs in case of a work-related injury or illness. What are the options during their path to recovery? Workers generally have to see a designated physician who defines the medical restrictions and can remove workers from the RTW program for any violations.

On the other hand, employers must have a plan in place to protect themselves from any legal ramifications of a workplace accident – but a successful RTW program will offer much more. In its “Return to Work Toolkit” article, the U.S. Department of Labor said that an RTW program “can improve productivity and morale across an organization, save organizations time and money and protect agencies from loss of talent.”

Employees who know that management has a comprehensive policy in place to ensure that they will be taken care of in case of an injury or illness often feel more workplace camaraderie and stronger loyalty to the company. The employer won’t have to hire and train someone new if an injured worker has the option to go back to work with modified tasks that are in keeping with the doctor’s orders.

A successful RTW program is a win-win situation, but the design of such a program requires the knowledge and skills of a workplace safety expert who can understand and meet the needs of all parties involved.

RTW Strategies

A number of options can serve as effective return-to-work strategies. For example, injured workers can return on limited or light-duty status, or they can volunteer at a nonprofit in lieu of immediately getting back to work.

The U.S. Department of Labor article also lists these additional RTW opportunities:

  • part-time work
  • telecommuting
  • modified work duties
  • modified schedule
  • accommodations that provide the tools and resources necessary for the employee to continue working

“Efforts such as these can help employees return to work sooner, even while still recovering. This allows the employee to protect their earning power while at the same time boosting the organization’s productivity. Furthermore, in many instances, the ability to return to work after injury or illness plays an important role in the employee’s actual recovery process,” the article noted.

How to Create a Suitable RTW Program

Workplace safety personnel must find a way to communicate the specific needs of an RTW program to the management, which may include meeting with the managers of different departments. The RTW coordinator should also be prepared to work with trade union representatives. Depending on the industry, a union may be involved to protect the rights of the employees, which can add another layer of complexity when crafting the RTW policies.

To satisfy management, the RTW coordinator will have to make the case, using hard data, for the benefits of an RTW program. When management is in agreement on the elements to be included in the RTW program, the coordinator should produce a written policy that is distributed to everyone in the company physically or digitally. A poster with the RTW program policies and process can be placed in a common area. The policy should also be handed out to new employees during the onboarding process.

A sample RTW program from SAIF, Oregon’s not-for-profit workers’ compensation insurance company, includes information on employer and employee responsibilities, such as:

  • Objectives of the RTW policy
  • Detailed job descriptions, including physical duties
  • How to report a workplace accident
  • Medical treatment options
  • Making a bona fide offer of modified employment
  • Description of required forms to be sent to the insurance carrier
  • Employee signature to show acknowledgment of the policy

However, successfully implementing a return to work program means that its policies and process must be strictly enforced.

The occupational safety and health expert should meet with sick or injured employees to make sure that they have followed the procedures as described in the RTW program. The OSH expert should also check in with the company to be sure it has filled out and submitted all necessary forms to allow the RTW process to move along smoothly. Finally, the expert should keep track of the successes of the RTW program to reassure management of its validity.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management (MSSSSEM) Program

Students in EKU’s online emergency management degree program are exposed to the essential components of safety, security and emergency management, including policy design and enforcement for work-related injuries and illnesses. The program allows students to customize their experience through a Multidisciplinary Track or concentrations in Corporate Security Operations, Occupational Safety, or Emergency Management and Disaster Resilience. The concentrations are also available as stand-alone graduate certificates, independent of a master’s degree.

Eastern Kentucky University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate, baccalaureate, masters, specialist, and doctorate degrees. Questions about the accreditation of Eastern Kentucky University may be directed in writing to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033-4097, by calling (404) 679-4500, or by using information available on SACSCOC’s website ( For more information, contact Eastern Kentucky University now.

Recommended Reading

New OSHA Standards For 2019

Helping Employees After An Injury

Encouraging Employee Compliance With Personal Protective Equipment


Return to Work Toolkit: Department of Labor

Return to work sample policy: SAIF