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Older workers warrant researchers' attention

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Too little is known about how workers manage job demands as they age and begin to lose physical and cognitive abilities.

Yet there seems to be widespread agreement that knowing more about older workers is important for employers, especially as older employees make up a growing proportion of the U.S. workforce.

As a result, there have been more discussions about the productivity of aging workers along with studies comparing how older and younger workers differ with regard to the how often they are injured, how much medical attention they require when they are hurt and how many days of work they miss.

Last month, for example, NCCI Holdings Inc. released a finding that indemnity severity, or wage benefits, is roughly 4% less among workers compensation claims filed by employees age 65 and older compared with all other age groups. That is largely because they tend to earn a lower weekly wage. Medical severity costs, however, are 26% higher for their claims.

Previously NCCI, a rating and research organization, limited its investigation of older workers' claims injuries to those age 64 and younger.

But the percentage of people 65 and older who either are in the workforce or looking for work has grown from 11% to 17% of all people in that age group since the late 1980s. The percentage for those age 55 to 64 who are working or looking for work has increased from 55% to 65% during the same period.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people age 25 to 54 who are working or looking for jobs has remained unchanged at 83% during the period.

Simply put, we baby boomers make up a big part of the workforce and we are not getting any younger.

So you see organizations such as the American Society of Safety Engineers providing more information on how to design workplaces that are safer for older workers and help boost their productivity.

But despite the growing body of knowledge about aging employees, we still don't know much about what older people do every day while at work to make up for the decline in eyesight, hearing, attention capacity, memory and other abilities.

A recent conversation with Joel M. Haight convinced me of that.

Mr. Haight is a branch manager supervising human factors researchers for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Office for Mining, Safety and Health Research. Prior to that, he was an associate professor of energy and mineral engineering at Pennsylvania State University, where he studied safety. He also has worked as an environmental and safety engineer for Chevron Corp.

Unfortunately, there has not been adequate research into older worker performance conducted in real workplaces, where all the workaday pressures are present, said Mr. Haight, who spoke to me as a member of ASSE and not as a spokesman for the U.S. government.

Most studies on aging-worker performance have been completed in quiet lab environments where people are asked to complete specific tasks, Mr. Haight said.

But “there is not enough, and actually not much at all, in studies addressing performance in the midst of a workday,” he said.

That means employers don't know enough about how aging employees are accommodating for declining capabilities. Are they jerry-rigging devices to help them lift loads or creating platforms that help them step over obstacles?

If employers are not directing such accommodations, it is possible individual worker efforts could actually be creating safety hazards for themselves and other employees.

Perhaps there are better ways to accommodate that could increase productivity. Research could help answer such questions.