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Employers adapt safety programs to reflect graying workforce

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Because baby boomers simply refuse to grow old gracefully, many occupational health experts believe the aging workforce will not have the negative impact on the workers compensation system that employers have long feared.

Even today's older workers-such as post-65 retirees who have come back to work part-time to supplement their retirement income-often are in better physical condition than the older workers of prior generations. In fact, statistics show a lower injury rate among workers over the age of 45 than among their younger counterparts.

But, when older workers do get injured, they are likely to be on the disabled list longer than younger workers because their bodies take longer to heal. And, depending on the nature of the injury, there may be some debate over whether an injury or disability is work-related, degenerative or both.

Regardless of the cause, loss control measures specifically designed to meet the needs of older workers can reduce both the frequency and severity of occupational injuries among this growing segment of the U.S. workforce.

Workforce gets older

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers age 55 or older grew from 11.8% of workforce in 1992 to 14.3% in 2002 and is projected to balloon to 19.1% by 2012, representing more than 31 million workers.

As a result of their good health and desire to remain active or need to continue working for financial reasons, nearly 80% of these aging workers are expected to remain in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age, according to a 2003 survey by the American Assn. of Retired Persons. Moreover, because the labor pool following this generation is shrinking, companies are likely to keep them on the job as long as they are able or willing to work.

Unfortunately, older workers tend to experience loss in a variety of areas-strength, muscular flexibility, range of motion, postural steadiness, grip strength, nervous system responses, blood flow and tactile feedback, visual capacity-as well as slowing of mental processing. But even though they may be deteriorating physically, older workers have the lowest occupational injury rate of any age group, suggesting that along with age comes wisdom.

Bureau of Labor statistics data "does bear out the fact that older people are not necessarily getting injured more often, even with slower reflexes and loss of some physical and cognitive capacity," said Joel M. Haight, an engineering professor at Penn State University and member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. "Apparently, because they're more experienced, they've learned better, safer and more efficient ways to do their job," he theorized.

While older workers may get injured less often, those who are hurt tend to take longer to heal, and many do not recover at all. Workers older than 55 are 12% to 35% less likely to return to work after an injury compared with workers between the ages of 25 and 36, a 2005 study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute found. In addition, they are out of work 62% to 276% longer, according to the study, "Return-to-Work Outcomes of Injured Workers: Evidence from California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Texas."

Teresa M. Dwyer, president of the Gold Coast Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers in Boca Raton, Fla., thinks these statistics will not reflect the experience of the generation of baby boomers.

"I think that some of the younger people are taking better care of themselves, employers are instituting wellness programs in their workplaces, some employers are instituting little stretch breaks that contribute to everybody's well-being. What you end up with is a workforce that, as it ages, is possibly in better shape than other generations. When they are injured, they may recover quicker," Ms. Dwyer said.

Just the fact that more people are continuing to work past retirement age "reflects the fact that people are more fit and healthier today than prior generations," acknowledged Harry Shuford, chief economist at the National Council of Compensation Insurance in Boca Raton, Fla., which has recently begun examining the impact of aging baby boomers on the workers comp system.

"The data in aggregate shows that older people tend to have a lower injury rate, but, when we get injured, it takes longer to recover," Mr. Shuford said. "Those are two offsetting things. The cost may be higher, but the frequency is lower, so it's a wash in terms of overall costs."

Sometimes older workers' injuries are exacerbated by pre-existing conditions, or "comorbidities," such as diabetes or heart disease, according to Christine Gerbasi, vp of claims at broker Keenan & Associates in Torrance, Calif.

For example, "diabetes can lead to neurological or neuropathy conditions that compound or complicate the industrial injury, or the degeneration in the musculoskeletal system could cause someone to be injured that in the same set of facts and circumstances a younger person wouldn't have been injured," she explained.

Such pre-existing factors often add complexity to resolving workers comp claims, Ms. Gerbasi added.

In California, for example, "the injury would still be compensable, but to what degree any permanent impairment would be paid by the employer would depend in part on that person's pre-existing injury, disability or pathology," she said. "It depends on the case and the facts."

While serving as the manager of occupational safety and health at Simplicity Manufacturing (now Briggs & Stratton) in Port Washington, Wis., where the average worker's age is 47, Jack Dobson said he was aware of a few claims where an injury that had been originally diagnosed as work-related was later attributed to a degenerative condition after being reviewed by an independent medical expert.

In those cases, the injured workers' lost time was treated as short-term disability and their health insurance covered their medical costs, said Mr. Dobson, who now is a senior account consultant at Keter Consultants in Chicago, a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Group.

Unfortunately, such situations often create friction between the employer and the injured worker, Mr. Dobson said.

"We've had a couple that have filed claims with the (Bureau of Workers' Compensation) to try to counter that. Most of them have not been terribly successful," he recalled.

To prevent future age-related injuries, many safety experts have recently begun tailoring their programs to the graying American workforce.

For example, since visual acuity decreases with age, they suggest employers increase lighting and provide computer screens that allow for larger type.

They recommend that employees with sedentary jobs have seats and workstations that adjust to their individual anthropometry and provide good lumbar and arm supports.

Since workers generally experience a gradual loss of hearing for the higher frequencies after the age of 50, employers should minimize machine, air conditioning and other sources of background noise and avoid work environments that cause echoes.

Falls most common

Because injuries related to falls are more common among older workers, employers should eliminate or avoid work at heights, particularly in windy conditions, on moist or slippery flooring or on moving equipment. And since most falls occur at the first or last two steps, employers should make sure stairs and uneven surfaces are clearly marked and lighted, use high-color contrast between risers and treads, and provide good hand rails.

The ASSE's Ms. Dwyer has found that training older workers to identify and respect their physical limitations can also prevent many work-related illnesses and injuries.

"Anybody who's in the work environment already-and they've had a long career and their body changes over time-they need to be cognizant of what the changes are and how it affects their job," she said. "The people coming into the workforce at an older age, maybe they've retired and for financial and social reasons to go back into the workplace, I think they really need to educate themselves on the demands of the job they're looking at."

"Say they're working outdoors-we might focus on hazards such as heat stress. Anecdotally, I have heard of cases where older workers have come back to work and wanting to prove that they still have it, that they can still do it, were shy about saying 'This is a little too much,' or 'I need a rest break,' or 'It's really too hot out here and I need to get a drink of water' or 'I need to find some shade,"' Ms. Dwyer said.

Dennis Downing, president and chief executive officer of Future Industrial Technologies Inc., a workplace ergonomics consulting firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif., suggests that injury and illness prevention programs focus on behavior modification.

"No generation has ever been taught really how to protect itself, so now we've got people who are less conditioned. For example, most workers do not know how to properly lift, bend or pull," Mr. Downing said. "They also have not been taught proper posture, which makes them prone to musculoskeletal injuries as they get older."

"People walk with a little forward tilt as they age," he pointed out. "Anybody who's been at a computer for a long time, you'll see that their neck isn't (aligned) over their body anymore."

Fortunately, today's aging workforce isn't like the proverbial old dogs; they are willing to learn new tricks, particularly if it means they will have less discomfort, Mr. Downing said.

"We've got an aging workforce we can protect by teaching them-and they're very eager to know-how to stay out of pain, because they're still vital people," he said.

"Injuries immediately make you older. We are motivated not to get older, and that means not getting injured. Employees will buy into programs that will help them be healthier and fitter," Mr. Downing said.