PHILADELPHIA -- When Bill Heriegel was hit by an oncoming truck at work last month, he thought he was going to die.
His body was twisted by the impact, which left tissues in his back and side permanently damaged. Going back to work was probably the last thing on his mind.
But thanks to an innovative work-rehabilitation program that his employer paid for, all Mr. Heriegel thinks about now is getting back to his job.
"I am looking forward to going back to work on August 19," Mr. Heriegel said proudly as he worked on a rowing machine designed to build upper-body strength at WorkHab, a work-rehabilitation center based in suburban Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Instead of becoming a "couch potato with nothing to do," Mr. Heriegel said, he's been able to build up his strength by doing exercises that simulate his duties as a driver for the Philadelphia General Asphalt & Paving Co. His company is one of a growing number of employers that are electing to place injured employees on work-rehabilitation programs such as WorkHab.
WorkHab, founded in 1988, claims it increases an injured employee's chances of returning to work sooner -- which, for the employer, cuts losses in productivity and, ultimately, workers' compensation costs.
While politicians try to reform the workers' comp system, cost-control measures such as WorkHab and company health-awareness programs are making headway, saving money and pleasing insurers, employers and employees.
For employees, such programs are a way to get back to earning full paychecks again instead of depending on smaller workers' compensation checks that sometimes can amount to only 60 percent of working wages.
For employers, the programs keep injured employees productive.
And for insurers, they reduce abuses and fraudulent claims.
Many insurers charge cheaper premiums to companies that have work-rehabilitation and in-house health programs, said Ed Furey, NCCI publications editor.
Although "it isn't a panacea for everything," AFL-CIO spokesman Jim Ellenberger said, "in some situations it can be useful. . . . There are success stories in work rehabilitation."
Coca-Cola turned to WorkHab to help it reduce the $2.7 million it paid out for 197 claims last year. Through June, the company's injury bill has shrunk to 73 claims costing $472,000.
"I really think the answer to the problem is to rehabilitate and develop training to prevent injuries so that there is a stronger possibility for reducing accidents and returning to a work ethic," said John Kolb, vice president of human resources for Coca-Cola.
Unlike traditional physical therapy, WorkHab requires patients to be active participants in rehabilitation in a process called workhardening.
Workhardening operates under the theory that "if you fall off a bike, the best thing to do is get back on," said Thomas Keane, WorkHab's president.
Each of the WorkHab facilities consists of mock work sites, with machines and gadgets designed to simulate working conditions.
There also are machines that monitor pain, which can help thwart a dishonest employee who is trying to collect workers' compensation.
A client arrives at WorkHab and punches a time clock, just as he or she might at work, and is monitored by licensed physical therapists.
Mr. Keane said the program kept employees in a "working" mode. And because the exercise sessions, which gradually become longer and more strenuous, can sometimes be harder than work itself, the program encourages employees to return to their jobs.
"By the time they reach six weeks, many of our clients run back to work," Mr. Keane said. "They say, 'Why do six hours of work here, when I can do only four hours at work?' "
Mr. Keane claims that WorkHab can rehabilitate an employee in six weeks for about $6,000, while employers who opt not to rehabilitate their employees may lose $25,000 in claims and six months of productivity.
WorkHab also teaches employees proper posture when lifting or doing other work tasks, and provides tips on good nutrition and the effects of smoking, alcohol and drug abuse. Some area employers are implementing their own health-awareness programs, dealing with diet, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse as well as light-duty programs, such as answering phones or other clerical work.
At Coca-Cola, which has bottling plants in Philadelphia and suburban Folcroft, Pa., injured employees are placed on light duty so that they can continue receiving regular paychecks.
Cathy Wilson, of Coca Cola said, "It keeps them in a working mode. . . . Otherwise, they'll say, 'I can go to the Shore, and pick up my check on Friday.' Now they can't say that."