To help employees return to work after an illness or injury, many companies offer modified duties as part of their early return-to-work programs. To facilitate these temporary assignments, employers use a task bank, a listing of previously identified tasks at various departments in the company. With a task bank, an employee's abilities are matched with the physical and cognitive requirements of various tasks, which are then bundled into a job.
Now, some employers are taking the task bank concept beyond only temporary assignments for ill and injured workers covered by workers' compensation or short-term disability. These employers are using task banks to structure permanent assignments for workers with disabilities, and to recycle their aging workforces.
From a disability management perspective, this is ideal. The transitional work becomes a stepping stone to a permanent assignment. This is good for the employee, who remains productive and retains his or her earning power.
It is also good for the employer, who retains an employee in whom it has invested knowledge and training. Wage replacement and disability costs are reduced as a result. In addition, depending upon how workers' comp is administered in a particular state, there may be other incentives to provide permanent alternative assignments to workers with disabilities.
"The task bank concept is really well used in disability management, enabling employers to find transitional work for employees," says John Lui, executive director of the Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute, University of Wisconsin-Stout. "By doing the job analysis ahead of time, they can pull out these specific tasks, which can be made into alternative duties."
Because the employee's health and the disability changes, the process of matching a disabled employee to a job becomes dynamic and fluid. Using a task bank to match specific duties with an individual's capabilities can continue through the employee's career. This approach also can be used to accommodate workers as they "age out" of their jobs, particularly physically demanding ones. By using a task bank, companies can plan for the aging of their workforces and reassign employees to tasks that take advantage of their knowledge and experience, but are less apt to cause injury.
"The task-bank approach allows companies to integrate this information with safety and prevention," says Lui. "In essence, it does not matter whether the accommodation is for a person who has been injured or for a person who has experienced whatever difficulties, including aging. The person can be transitioned to assignments that provide accommodation as needed."
The bridge between traditional return-to-work for workers' comp to permanent and active reassignment is considered cutting-edge and vital for efficient workforce management. Rather than viewing workers' comp in isolation, it becomes part of an overall workforce health and productivity strategy.
"Although workers' comp has traditionally been managed in a company's risk management department with integration efforts largely centered on coordination of workers' comp and short-term disability claims processing, many cutting-edge companies are taking it a step further," says Maria Henderson, vice president of workforce productivity at Health and Disability Management Solutions Inc.
"CEOs are increasingly concerned about health-care inflation and the diminishing productivity of the workforce," Henderson adds. "The risk manager who understands the need to cut across silos and integrate programs with their HR and health-care counterparts to tackle the concerns of the C-suite can expand the role of risk management and prepare the company for the challenges of the emerging workforce demographics."
Increasingly, workforce demographics include baby boomers who will face health issues as they get older. This demographic will face "aging out" issues in physically intense occupations as well. With a task bank, companies can plan for and ease them into transitional duties that evolve into permanent assignments.
"If you build a culture around early intervention, not only for older workers, but for all employees, that permeates the company," Lui adds. "Younger workers also know that, as they get older, they will experience the accommodation benefit. The message to employees is, 'The company is looking out for me.' As younger or middle-aged employees, they know that this will be available to them."
One company, a furniture manufacturer in Orange County, Calif., is facing the aging-out and job accommodation issues head on.
This company found that from repetitive motions and the lifting of heavy objects, the highest incidence of injury occurred in its upholstery department. Based on its workers' comp claims, the company knew that employees who stayed in those jobs longer than seven or eight years had a higher likelihood of developing continuous trauma injuries.
As a result, the company launched an employee re-education program to prepare workers to move out of the upholstery department and into other assignments to reduce work-related injuries.
A task bank is a key component to such efforts as it identifies tasks that need to be accomplished, and categorizes them by physical and cognitive requirements.
This approach requires companies to expand their thinking about RTW programs and modified duties. Rather than seeing tasks banks through the lens of transitional assignments, employers can expand them to include permanent placement.
ROBERT HALL is a commissioner for the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission. He is also director of the Work & Health Technologies Center at San Diego State University, and is an adjunct professor in the graduate Rehabilitation Counseling Program.
November 1, 2005
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