National Safety Month 2021, Week 2: Return to Work
Welcome back to DORN's blog series celebrating National Safety Month 2021. For week two, we're digging into return-to-work strategies from COVID-19, preparedness for future infectious diseases and best safety practices in the manufacturing industry, topics we covered in-depth with Huey Nunn (Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety at Dover Corporation) on the DORN Injury Prevention Academy Podcast in October of 2020.
Return-to-work has always been a challenging aspect of workplace safety; how do you bring employees back on the job after they've suffered an injury without rushing their recovery, aggravating the injury, or keeping workers out of work for longer than necessary? Before the pandemic, DORN delivered a robust RTW program to help accelerate getting employees back to full capacity and eliminate the need for light duty.
Over the last 18 months, return-to-work has taken on a different meaning and remains at the front of mind for many safety professionals as they've grappled with the best ways to bring their workforces back after shutdowns forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, safety leaders are looking to embrace some of the principles that guided the reopening process after business closures, integrating key concepts into their programs for returning employees to their jobs after an injury.
Key Principles of Effective Return-to-Work
During the pandemic, DORN Companies collaborated with safety leaders from across industries, pulling in expertise from Tesla, Smiths Group, Cargill, Dover, and other major manufacturers to develop a return-to-work strategy based on a holistic evaluation of the work environment. This framework consists of five major facets.
Phase 1: Workforce Planning
Even outside the context of a pandemic, workforce planning is key to determining how employees can be reintegrated into the workplace. In this phase, safety managers should be evaluating the employee's role in their department and organization, assessing how the workplace has adjusted to the employee's absence, and outlining how their responsibilities may have been shifted to other employees. This will help managers determine the level of support the returning employee will need in order to perform their tasks adequately. Likewise, workforce planning helps establish communication between managers and the affected employees, ensuring that a culture of responsibility and safety follows the return-to-work process.
Phase 2: Physical Environment Review
This stage became critical during the pandemic as manufacturers looked to bring their employees back on site—the necessity of social distancing and illness prevention measures made it essential to adjust facility layouts and move individual workspaces.
For employees returning to work following an injury, the physical environment can still pose risks of aggravating the injury or introducing other factors that could slow the worker's recovery time. Safety leaders should continuously conduct ergonomic audits of their physical workspaces to ensure that ergonomic standards are met and that employees can work safely.
Phase 3: Active Monitoring
Most employers were required to add some kind of illness monitoring and tracing to their operations during the pandemic. Now, those precautions are still necessary as more people receive vaccinations. Contact tracing and viral testing are still key for maintaining continuity in the workplace and avoiding outbreaks that could send employees home in large numbers.
In terms of ergonomic support and return-to-work after injuries, active monitoring means keeping track of employees' various health factors and safety risks as well as their body mechanics and adherence to best safety practices. Fatigue monitoring and prevention should also be factored into any return-to-work strategy. Does the employee need a work-hardening program? Additional breaks? Training on proper body mechanics for that employee or even the entire department? Check DORN's body mechanics training here.
Phase 4: Prevention & Sustainability
All of the previous stages were and are essential for keeping operations running smoothly during the pandemic and beyond. At this point, sustaining a functional, productive workforce and minimizing risk involves being proactive about employee health and wellness. Additional ergonomic awareness training can help reinforce best practices and prevent future injuries, and employees returning to work following an injury should be given the resources they need to recover and reach full capacity. This may mean offering on-site pain relief therapies, mobility and conditioning training, desktop ergonomic software, and other solutions that provide ongoing wellness support for employees.
Phase 5: Virtual Safety Support
The dynamics of the modern workplace are changing, and it's no longer always possible to provide employees with direct, in-person wellness support. Many employees are now working at home or remotely, and those working on-site may not have the same access to safety programming that they did before the pandemic.
Virtual solutions make it easier for employers to maintain a culture of safety and proactive wellness even when workers can't access in-person services. Virtual ergonomic assessments and self-care technique training can greatly reduce pain levels and improve focus and engagement among employees while also mitigating fatigue and injury risks. Recently, DORN introduced Self-Care Plus, a suite of services developed to address the needs of remote and home workers. These employees are often forgotten by traditional safety programs or are just given some helpful tips for working off-site. However, those employees have the same needs as employees who are on-site daily—Self-Care Plus fills those needs while providing peace of mind for safety managers.
More Return-to-Work Resources
Want to learn more about innovative return-to-work strategies? Check out the DORN Injury Prevention Academy Podcast featuring Huey Nunn, who shared his firsthand experience in creating return-to-work plans for manufacturing employees during and after the pandemic.
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