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The health and safety of the rapidly growing number of older U.S. workers demand employer attention to reduce injury-related losses, experts say.
Health care costs, workers compensation spending and worker productivity are factors employers must consider as the nation's population and its workforce age, they add.
That is because employees' physical condition, such as deterioration caused by age or chronic disease, can affect how older employees respond to potential workplace hazards, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Meanwhile, the number of older U.S. workers will continue growing, perhaps at a greater pace than observers expected several years ago, because of the Great Recession's negative effect on worker savings, employers' desire to retain skilled workers, and rising health care costs that are keeping more older employees in the workforce, several experts said.
In 1988, U.S. workers 55 and older numbered about 15 million, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. The number increased to nearly 28 million in 2008 and is expected to grow to nearly 40 million by 2018, when all baby boomers will be 54 or older.
Workers aged 55 and older are projected to make up nearly 25% of the workforce by 2018, up from 18.1% in 2008, according to BLS data.
Yet many employers are not adequately prepared or even aware of the health and safety risks older workers may present, said NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard.
While older workers generally are less likely to suffer workplace injuries, it takes longer for them to return to productivity when they do get hurt, Dr. Howard said.
“So employers who aren't aware of that probably are not trying to manage their workforce the best that they could,” he said. “In other words, they may not be looking at the health care costs of their workforce (as well as they could), and they are not looking at what could make the work safer or healthier for older workers. Some employers don't even know the distribution of ages of the people that work for them.”
In 2005, an American Society of Safety Engineers poll found that companies were not prepared for an aging workforce. But the situation may be more critical today because the Great Recession left even fewer baby boomers financially capable of retiring, said Terrie S. Norris, president of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based ASSE.
Simultaneously, employers generally have not helped employees adequately prepare for retirement, while the boomers, or people born between 1946 and 1964, are healthier and living longer than previous generations, Ms. Norris said.
The longer lifespan means more people will have to work longer.
Increasing medical costs also may force older workers to delay retirement, especially those with chronic medical conditions that can add to workplace health and safety concerns, Ms. Norris and other observers added.
Indeed, a series of surveys conducted by AARP over 13 years found consistently that baby boomers plan to work into their retirement years because of financial necessity, a need for health care coverage and other factors, such as personal enrichment.
AARP survey results from 2008, the organization's latest on the issue, revealed that 70% of U.S. residents planned to work into retirement. And that was conducted while the Great Recession was taking hold of the U.S. economy.
“So it really behooves the employer” to provide older workers with tools and work processes that reduce the probability of injuries, Ms. Norris said. “We need to take that into context in our safety programs: How do we keep older folks from injuring themselves?”
Fortunately for employers, measures that improve the health and safety of older workers—such as better lighting, slip-resistant floors and chronic disease management programs—also benefit younger workers, several safety experts said.
While more older U.S. residents say they plan to work longer, many employers prefer to retain their expertise and job dedication, said Phyllis C. Cohn, a consultant with expertise on workplace aging who formerly worked on an AARP workforce issues team.
But Ms. Cohn said she fears many employers won't consider the safety needs of older workers unless the related health and safety costs reached a crisis point.
Currently, more employers are placing greater emphasis on addressing other health care and workers comp cost drivers, such as obesity, than on aging, said Janice Homola, a senior consultant in Lansing, Mich., for Coverys, a medical professional liability insurer.
But more employers are developing strategies to manage older-worker issues, including health and safety measures, because companies want to benefit from older workers' knowledge and experience, said Ms. Homola, who helps employers develop worker injury loss-prevention programs.
One of her hospital clients, for instance, tried to lure back two cooks who had retired, but both declined the offer, so Ms. Homola said the hospital had to hire someone with less experience.
“There is a concern of losing the knowledge base that (employers) have with their experienced staff,” she said. “I have seen quite an uptick in the interest level in aging in the workplace because employers are realizing how important it is.”
But aging workers also are more susceptible to certain injuries, such as musculoskeletal disorders, than their younger counterparts, she said.
“So one of the strategies is to reduce (workplace) strains and sprains,” which would benefit all employees regardless of age, Ms. Homola said.
NCCI Holdings Inc. research released in January found that there are differences in injury types where severity is driven by age.
For example, older workers suffer more rotator cuff and knee injuries than younger employees, according to Boca Raton, Fla.-based NCCI.
Meanwhile, national demographic characteristics, such as the relatively fewer births that occurred during the 1980s, mean that the only substantial growth in worker numbers through 2020 will be among those 55 and older, Dr. Howard said.
While the percentage of younger workers and those in their midcareer stage will grow 5% to 7% over the next several years, the percentage of workers age 55 and older will grow about 60% to 70%, Dr. Howard added.
“That is a demographic employers need to be aware of,” because the decline in body functionality that accompanies aging raises questions employers need to weigh, Dr. Howard said.
He said questions to ask include: “Is there anything I can do that would help keep those workers safer or healthier so my workers comp premium doesn't go up and my health insurance premium doesn't go up?”