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Adjust safety practices to retain older workers


Older workers bring a lifetime of skills and experience to their jobs, making valuable contributions into their 50s, 60s and 70s. But the normal aging process may impact an older worker's ability to perform a job safely.

As the nation's baby boomers approach traditional retirement age, more and more seem to be saying, "No, thanks." Surveys indicate that this generation, the largest in U.S. history, is opting to stay on the job, thereby making a profound impact on employers and the workers compensation system they support.

This could be good news for business owners who value the experience, expertise and work ethic of senior employees. But business owners, insurance agents and risk managers should also know a counter-factor: While older workers report fewer workplace injuries, the injuries they do receive can be costlier than those of younger workers.

Safety and claims issues

An indication of the growing, graying U.S. workforce lies in research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It reports that workers aged 55 and older constituted 11.8% of the workforce in 1992 and rose to 14.3% in 2002. But by 2012, the bureau projects this will climb to 19.1%--nearly one in five workers, or a total of 31 million.

Many older workers go on working out of need to make ends meet, and some do so to continue feeling useful by staying active. Better health also seems to be a factor because of advances in medical technology and incessant warnings about eating and drinking less, exercising more and not smoking.

In Maryland, for example, records of the state Workers' Compensation Commission support the conclusion that older workers are safer workers. Commission records for fiscal-year 2006 show that, of the 23,005 workers of known age and gender who filed workers compensation claims, only 6,880--less than one-third--were 50 or older. However, the agency's records also show that even among these older workers, the number of filed claims was 986 higher than in the preceding year.

As might be expected, injured older workers take longer to heal and return to work--if they return at all. A 2005 study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute indicated that 35% of these seniors were less likely to return to the job, compared with 12% in the 25 to 35 age bracket. In addition, injured workers 55 and over who ultimately returned did stay out longer, by 62%, than those 25 to 35 years old.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, roadway crashes are the leading cause of occupational fatalities for older workers, while back pain is the leading cause of lost workdays and one of the most costly health problems facing employers today. Among nonfatal injuries, those associated with ergonomic exposures such as bending, climbing, crawling, reaching, twisting and overexertion made up the greatest number of occupational injuries and illnesses involving lost workdays among construction workers.

Safety adjustments

In light of such facts, employers can easily adjust their safety practices by taking into account that age usually diminishes strength, ability and endurance. While older workers generally have better safety records than younger ones, there are steps employers can take to improve this further by adjusting workplace conditions and habits. Here are some recommendations:

c Use brighter lighting to compensate for age-induced loss of visual acuity.

c Recommend the use of larger type on computer screens.

c Consider reducing noise from machines, air conditioners and other appliances.

c Adjust seats and desktops at workstations to reduce leg and back problems.

c Set and enforce comprehensive driver safety policies and evaluate jobs that require quick reaction times.

c Post reminders about proper use of ladders to retrieve high objects and the use of carts or wheelbarrows for heavy lifting.

c Mark and light slippery floors, stairs and uneven surfaces.

c Recommend brief breaks from working at computers to avoid back problems and prescribe hand exercises to reduce carpal tunnel syndrome.

c Remind older workers to push pride aside and recognize the changes in strength, agility and balance that age inevitably brings, then adjust their work goals to those changes.

Growing older is a natural condition, and wanting to work, for whatever reason, is becoming more prevalent. The profitable trick, for worker and employer alike, is to see that it is done safely.

Joseph Gillian is director of loss control for IWIF Workers' Compensation Insurance in Towson, Md.