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Employers urged to handle older workers with care

Posted On: Jul. 22, 2016 12:00 AM CST

NEW ORLEANS — Employers can and should take action to keep older, skilled employees in the workforce and mitigate injury risks for them.

“We're talking about keeping people who want to continue to work, who are really good at their jobs, who are really productive — we want to help them continue to do that,” Dr. Michael Lacroix, associate medical director for disability and absence management services at Aetna Inc. in Sarasota, Florida, told attendees of the Disability Management Employer Coalition conference in New Orleans on Thursday.

However, the aging of the U.S. workforce raises concerns about injury and illness risks and outcomes, experts said. The average age of disability claimants edges up every year while the average duration of disability claims is also rising slightly, according to Aetna's short-term disability claims data.

Workers 65 and older have the lowest incidence rates of any age group, but the highest median days away from work due to injuries and illnesses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“As we get older, we're going to be more vulnerable to injuries; we're going to have more musculoskeletal problems,” said Tammy Bradly, vice president, clinical product development for Coventry Workers Comp Services in Birmingham, Alabama. “Our body parts are wearing out. We also see at the same time a decline in balance, reduced depth perception, loss of body strength, even some loss of vision and hearing. Unfortunately, I think we're losing everything except a few pounds.”

But keeping aging employees in the workforce is worthwhile, she said.

“I think our older workers are a valuable asset,” Ms. Bradly said. “A lot of industries are having difficulty replacing the skills that the older worker has brought to the workplace.”

In 2014, self-reported hearing loss was most prevalent among U.S. adults age 70 and older (43.2%), compared with adults 40-69 (19.0%) and 18-39 (5.5%), according to a National Center for Health Statistics report. However, older employees do not have their hearing and vision checked as much as they should, so employers should offer both tests at the worksite, documents and signage in larger fonts for those with vision problems and audio devices for those with hearing problems, Ms. Bradly said.

“An employee that's having problems with vision or even hearing can create major safety issues at the workplace,” she said. “If you can't read the instructions on a piece of equipment or a chemical, it can present safety problems. If you can't hear alarms going off in the background, it can cause safety problems.”

Other steps that employers can take to keep these workers healthy and on the job include providing flexible working schedules, a team approach to work assignments that pairs them with younger workers who do the more strenuous parts of the job and ergonomics assessments to evaluate work stations, she said.

“There are a lot of simple things employers can do at relatively no or low cost that can keep people safe, avoid injuries and keep them working,” she said.

Employers should also consider moving older workers into coaching or training positions and understand that their concerns are different from those of their younger counterparts.

“Often times they're afraid that if they aren't physically able to perform their job, there isn't going to be a job for them and they may not be competitive in the workforce,” she said.