According to the Federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics the construction industry has one of the highest occupational injury rates. What makes the situation worse is that the Social Security Administration notes that disability costs related to these injuries are projected to increase 37% this decade due to an aging workforce. This lost time due to injury/illness impacts both direct and indirect disability costs and that may lead to a variety of issues including a decrease in employee morale, increased litigation, and increased medical and lost time costs. It may also lead to an increased experience modification rate.

So what can contractors do to help control these costs? One of the most practical solutions is to adopt a formalized return to work (RTW) program. A RTW program may provide the opportunity for ill or injured workers to return to the workplace as soon as it is medically appropriate.  Effective RTW programs can result in contractors saving as much as 10% to 40 % of workers' compensation medical costs and 14% to 25% of wage replacement costs. Having an effective RTW program in place for your business just makes sense.

One of the primary components of any RTW program is successfully implementing a temporary transitional work process. Temporary Transitional Work Assignments (TTWA) help enable employers to allow their ill or injured employees an opportunity to return to work during the recovery process as soon as it is medically appropriate. TTWA periods are defined as the time from when an employee first returns to work with restrictions or job modifications to when the employee recovers and can fully function in their previous job.

The keys to developing successful TTWA programs are to:

  1. create assignments that are temporary in nature
  2. create assignments that have predetermined durations of transitional work
  3. create assignments that are based on employees' changing restrictions
  4. ensure the workplace is conducive to being part of the rehabilitation process
  5. identify transitional jobs prior to injuries occurring

Suppose a laborer has a shoulder injury with restrictions imposed by his or her healthcare provider. These restrictions may limit the amount of overhead lifting, reaching, pushing, and pulling the worker can do. To assist in allowing  the worker to return to work more quickly, they could be assigned tasks such flagging, directing trucks and pedestrians, raking, light shoveling, paper work, site clean-up, etc. The goal is to slowly progress the work assignments as the restrictions are reduced.

Patrick Clarke

However, the construction industry generally struggles with identifying and accommodating temporary transitional work assignments. Many contractors often think it is easier to allow the injured worker to stay off work until they fully recover from their injuries. While it may be easier, it is also more expensive.

Contractors should face this issue head on by using tools, resources and services to assist them in being proactive. Developing customized RTW policies and procedures and identifying temporary transitional work opportunities can reduce lost time claims exposure. For one firm alone we identified and developed over 150 temporary transitional work opportunities that resulted in a 41% reduction in lost time claims and nearly $1 million dollars in savings within the first 3 years of program inception.

As part of any contractor's comprehensive return to work process, they should pay particular attention to the development of temporary transitional work assignments. By doing so, they will go a long way toward helping to better manage lost workdays due to injury or illness, while lowering their overall costs of doing business and enhancing employee morale.

Patrick Clarke is Absence, Health and Productivity Services Manager - Risk Engineering, Zurich Services Corp., Schaumburg, IL. He can be reached at or 800-982-5964.