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Preventing workplace injuries to older workers

Preventing workplace injuries to older workers

As the U.S. workforce ages, many employers are turning to ergonomics, wellness initiatives and modified job duties to help prevent injuries among their workers.

By making jobs more user-friendly for older workers now, experts say companies can lower their loss costs and number of workplace accidents, while improving safety and health down the road as younger workers age.

Common strategies being used by employers include increased lighting, installing slip-resistant flooring, incorporating light-duty tasks for manual-labor jobs, and modifying workspaces to reduce overhead lifting or other repetitive motions.

As the number of older workers grows nationwide, it's becoming more important for employers to adopt such strategies and prepare for the coming “silver tsunami,” said Lance Perry, Keller, Texas-based senior ergonomist and engineer for Zurich Services Corp., a unit of Zurich North America.

“Everywhere I go, there is a significant amount of graying, and that is simply going to be a bigger concern later on,” Mr. Perry said. “We are getting older, and we can't deny it.”

CF Jordan Construction L.L.C. of El Paso, Texas, is using a wellness strategy for its 350 hourly workers—most of whom are over 40 years old.

Grace Herrera, senior manager of risk, safety and learning for the firm, said the company held a health fair in 2007 to help workers identify medical problems that need treatment, such as high-blood pressure or diabetes. CF Jordan also has incorporated pre-shift stretching routines for employees, and wellness information often is presented to workers during the sessions.

The result has been a drop in injuries and claims for the firm during the last few years. The improvements prompted CF Jordan to nearly triple the deductible on its workers compensation policy at its most recent renewal.

“(We're) pretty confident that we have a good program,” Ms. Herrera said. “Pretty much no claim is ever going to meet that deductible.”

Stretching, conditioning and overall wellness are some of the several aging workforce strategies that have been advised by companies such as Zurich and The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. of Hartford, Conn.

William Schaffner, vp of loss control for Hartford, said such tactics are helpful for older employees, who sometimes must cope with pre-existing medical conditions or non-work-related demands—such as caring for elderly parents—along with their jobs.

“Employees could be experiencing stress—whether it's due to a work-related issue or a personal matter—that could affect them in the work environment,” he said.

Preventing injuries among older workers can have cost-saving implications for employers.

A recent study by Boca Raton, Fla.-based NCCI Holdings Inc. showed that workers comp frequency has decreased among workers of all ages in the last several years. However, medical and indemnity claim severity for workers ages 45 to 64 was more than 50% higher than claim severity for workers ages 20 to 34.

Much of the difference was attributed to more severe injuries among older workers, such as sprained rotator cuffs, and higher wages that resulted in higher indemnity costs.

As risk consultants look for ways to prevent costly injuries, many are recommending ergonomics as a method to help reduce accidents.

For instance, Willis North America worked three years ago with a concrete contractor to replace heavy steel chutes on its concrete mixer trucks with lighter aluminum chutes. The move helped reduced strain for the company's workers, who lift and move the chutes at job sites, said David Barry, vp and national technical director for casualty risk control with Willis North America in Overland Park, Kan.

Mr. Barry said the lighter chutes resulted in 30% fewer workers comp claims for the concrete company.

“Sometimes just rearranging things or using equipment we already have or changing a process can eliminate a lot of the exposure,” Mr. Barry said.

Some warehouse operations have been advised to place popular items on shelves where employees can avoid bending or reaching, said Wayne Maynard, Hopkinton, Mass.-based manager of technical services and product development for Liberty Mutual Group Inc.'s Loss Control Advisory Services unit.

The addition of more frequent rest breaks, as well as allowing laborers to perform some light-duty tasks during their shifts, also can help aging workers recuperate from physically demanding work, Mr. Maynard said.

“It's very important to consider recovery time,” he said.

Experts say safety strategies for the aging workforce are beneficial for workers of all ages. By using designs and processes that reduce strain and accidents, companies reap the benefits of an overall safer workplace, Mr. Perry said.

“You have to redesign the job to help minimize the (age) gap, and if you can do that, life is good everywhere,” said Zurich's Mr. Perry.