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Safety Management

Return-to-Work (RTW) Programs

Quick Tips #406

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2016 to 2019 on average nearly three million workers experienced a workplace injury or occupational disease,1 resulting in an average of eight days2 of missed work per year. Workplace injuries and illnesses are costly to both the employer and employee. The average cost of a medically consulted incident in 2019 was $42,0003 and the average workers' compensation cost in 2017-2018 was $41,000.4

Although preventing injuries is the best way to protect workers and control workers’ compensation costs, injuries and illnesses can and will happen. Employers need a way to manage injuries and illness when they occur. It is in the best interest of both the employee and employer to return the employee back to a productive role as quickly as their medical conditions allow. This saves the employer money and allows the employee to be productive and feel they are contributing to the bottom line sooner. A sound return-to-work (RTW) program is needed to achieve these goals.

What Is a Return-to-Work (RTW) Management Program?

RTW is a proactive post-illness/post-injury approach designed to return ill and injured employees as soon as they are medically able to their pre-illness/pre-injury status in the safest and most effective manner possible. The program allows employees, employers, union representatives, rehabilitation services, claims and health care providers to all work together in a caring and cost-effective way to return the ill or injured employee to work as soon as possible. This enables employees to be productive during their recuperation and to maintain a connection to the workplace.

A well-managed RTW program produces the major benefits of maximizing treatments, minimizing long-term workers’ compensation costs, achieving an earlier return to maximum work capacity and shorter rehabilitation time, and strengthening the workplace community through continued communication.

Steps to an Effective RTW Program

Key steps employers should consider when developing an effective RTW program include:

1. Establish a written policy

Employers should design a policy that reinforces the commitment to encouraging injured or ill employees to RTW as soon as medically able. Additionally, it should provide an explanation of modified duties and the benefits of returning to work as soon as possible such as maintaining some or all of their earnings and company benefits. The policy should address the need to have a RTW doctor’s notes detailing any physical limitations or restrictions the employee may have.

2. Develop a bank of light-duty job descriptions

Employers should develop a bank of light duty jobs that can accommodate injured or ill workers. The basic duties of these jobs should be clearly outlined in the job descriptions so they can be easily matched to injured or ill workers. These jobs should be temporary in nature and not considered permanent.

3. Create an agreement form

Employers that place an employee in an RTW program should work with their workers’ compensation carrier to develop a RTW form which includes the following: 

  • The start and end date of the work
  • The new hours and days of work
  • The person he or she will report to during the temporary work period
  • The deadline for the employee to accept the work
  • Consequence statement for not accepting temporary work
  • Employee acceptance or refusal
  • Employee’s name, signature, and date
  • Contact name for more information if needed


When employer’s take steps to implement an effective RTW program and all stakeholders collaboratively work together, RTW programs can realize their full potential to:

  • Reduce cost to all affected parties
  • Reduce the negative effects of time away from work
  • Develop more specialized treatment plans
  • Support the primary care provider in the RTW decision

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Where can I get help to start or improve my return-to-work (RTW) program?

A: The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP) offers resources such as stay at work and return to work research and publications to help employers start or improve an RTW program.

Q: What are the financial benefits to an employee for early return to work after an injury or illness?

A: Returning to work sooner allows the injured or ill employee to make their standard wages sooner resulting in less impact of financial loss. Workers’ compensation alone is insufficient to replace lost wages. Additionally, scientific evidence has shown returning to work sooner aides in healing and recovery.


1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Survey of Occupational Injuries, and Illnesses Data News Release 2016-2019

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Survey of Occupational Injuries, and Illnesses Data Table R65 2016-2019

3. National Safety Council Injury Facts, Worker Injury Costs, 2019. Medically consulted costs included estimates of wage losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses and employer costs.

4. National Council on Compensation Insurance’s (NCCI) Workers Compensation Statistical Plan database 2017-2018

What is Return-to-Work, Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry

How to Create a Return-to-Work / Light-Duty Program, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 2014-2021

Stay at Work / Return to Work, Office of Disability Employment Policy, Department of Labor

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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