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Aging workforce has positive benefits, but injury risks loom

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The U.S. workforce has steadily gotten older over the past two decades, which has both positive and negative connotations for workplace safety, experts say.

In 1994, people ages 55 and older represented 11.9% of the labor force – a number that is rising and is expected to reach 24.9% in 2024, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This has major implications for the injury potential in the workforce, experts said during a webinar called Managing Aging Workforce Risks hosted by Marsh's Workers' Compensation Center of Excellence on Wednesday.

“I would argue that the same risk factors exist for employees regardless of age,” said David Damico, Atlanta-based vice president and senior ergonomics consultant with Marsh Risk Consulting. “That said, certain risk factors such as force, repetition (and) environmental concerns can become more prevalent as we age.”

Significant changes are seen starting around age 55, including the accumulation of comorbid conditions such as diabetes and obesity – trends that can be costly for employers, said Gary Anderberg, senior vice president – claims analytics, Gallagher Bassett Services Inc. in Itasca, Illinois.

“What might be a simple injury for a 30-year-old might turn into permanent total disability for a 70-year-old if not handled properly,” he said.

However, older workers as a group tend to have fewer injuries and comp claims than younger employees, according to the experts.

“They are simply more experienced in their tasks,” Mr. Damico said. “They are probably more careful. Unfortunately, the severity of injuries to older workers often eclipses the total incurred cost of injuries to younger workers.”

Older workers “know what they’re doing,” Mr. Anderberg said. “They know what to avoid, where not to put their fingers and their toes, for example. The most dangerous time for any employee is generally the first year on the job when they’re still learning to work safely. But when they do suffer workplace injuries, for older employees, the medical indemnity costs can be higher, the cost of treatment can be higher in part because the comorbidities older workers tend to have can complicate recovery.”

But older workers have advanced skills and valuable experience, said Corinne Towler, senior manager for the industrial athlete program at Boeing Co. in Edmonds, Washington.

“We recognize it’s more critical than ever to keep those workers healthy, productive and with us for as long as possible,” she said. “If those older workers become injured in large numbers and miss work, we would be in trouble from a production perspective.”

In 2005, Boeing launched the health and productivity program, which focuses on injury prevention and improving the physical resilience of the company’s employees, she said. The program features job conditioning – similar to physical therapy but conducted prior to injury with healthy workers – via one-hour classes twice a week for seven weeks.

The job conditioning is open to all employees, but the company does pay attention to age, particularly with jobs that require more senior mechanics who have spent more time with the company and have developed technical expertise, she said.

“We focus more on marketing to them because they might present a more significant risk than younger employees from the impacts of injury on time loss and the severity of injury and also (because) of the importance of keeping that skilled population available for productivity,” Ms. Towler said.

Symptom intervention is another core element of the program, she said.

“What we want to offer is a place for people to go when they first have an indication that something might be going wrong, when they start to feel soreness anywhere in the body,” Ms. Towler said.

For example, the employee can get an assessment from an athletic trainer or a massage therapist, she said.

The job conditioning and symptom interventions have been successful, leading to double-digit decreases in recordable injuries and lost work days, with 97% of employees remaining free of injury to the affected body part for one year after participating in the program.

There have been implementation and other challenges for the program, including the ongoing need to make the business case for the program and scheduling issues at the start, she said. Keeping the program voluntary was another unexpected challenge because some company leaders looked at the outcomes data and questioned why the program wasn’t mandatory, Ms. Towler said.

“Our answer is that if we make it mandatory it could counteract some of the program’s benefits,” she said. “If people are forced to participate or feel like they’re being forced, we end up getting dissenters in the program. When that happens, the people who actually want to be there are prevented from fully engaging.”