Work hardening is usually a good idea to help employees return to work after an injury. But not all employees have access to this helpful tool after a work injury.
When does an inured worker heal from a work injury?
What kind of restrictions does an injured workers have from a work injury?
What kind of work will an injured worker be able to do with after an injury?
There are no easy answers for these questions. Unfortunately, I believe the insurance industry likes easy answers to these questions. They particularly like those easy answers that lead them to stop paying temporary benefits and return workers back with no restrictions based on medical evidence they have helped massage or produce.
But one semi-helpful practice that accounts from some shades of grey in the return-to-work process is work hardening.
What is work hardening?
Work hardening is when a medical doctor releases an employee to go back to work part-time and then ratchets up hours and duties over the course of a few weeks or months.
Work hardening stands in contrast to what I call return to work by ambush where an employee gets suddenly shifted from temporary total disability to release to return full duty and/or with no restrictions.
Work hardening allows someone to ease back to into work. Done properly an employee should also be able to collect temporary partial disability benefits while they are working reduced hours during work hardening.
Who gets work hardening?
I see work hardening with larger employers who have some ability to accommodate lighter duty positions. I also see work hardening with employees who are still employed by the employer where they were injured.
This leaves many employees out. Workers for smaller firms often miss out on work hardening. Employees working for employers without light duty may not get work hardening.
More on who does and doesn’t get work hardening.
As stated above, employees generally need to be still be employed to get benefit from work hardening. Many workers don’t have this luxury. A recent Texas Department of Insurance study, shows that an majority of injured workers aren’t working for their employer a year from injury.
One reason is that recovery from an injury often takes longer than the required 12 weeks of job protected leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes unpaid leave a reasonable accommodation. But at best ADA leave is a short-term extension of FMLA leave. (I won’t even address workers’ compensation retaliation in this post, but it also plays a factor)
But as I’ve wrote previously, unions often negotiate return-to-work programs that incorporate work-hardening. Heavily unionized industries like meat packing usually have work hardening as well. But even if a union doesn’t expressly negotiate return to work issues, unionized employers and unionized industries typically have relatively liberal leave policies that allow employees to maintain the employment relationship during an extended recovery from a work injury.