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Rapidly Growing Older Workforce Demands Employer Attention to Injuries

February 14, 2012
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The health and safety of the rapidly growing number of older U.S. workers demand employer attention to reduce injury-related losses, experts say.

Health care costs, workers' compensation spending and worker productivity are factors employers must consider as the nation's population and its workforce age, they add.

That is because employees' physical condition, such as deterioration caused by age or chronic disease, can affect how older employees respond to potential workplace hazards, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Meanwhile, the number of older U.S. workers will continue growing, perhaps at a greater pace than observers expected several years ago, because of the Great Recession's negative effect on worker savings, employers' desire to retain skilled workers, and rising health care costs that are keeping more older employees in the workforce, several experts said.

In 1988, U.S. workers 55 and older numbered about 15 million, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. The number increased to nearly 28 million in 2008 and is expected to grow to nearly 40 million by 2018, when all baby boomers will be 54 or older.

Workers aged 55 and older are projected to make up nearly 25 percent of the workforce by 2018, up from 18.1 percent in 2008, according to BLS data.

Yet many employers are not adequately prepared or even aware of the health and safety risks older workers may present, said NIOSH director Dr. John Howard.

While older workers generally are less likely to suffer workplace injuries, it takes longer for them to return to productivity when they do get hurt, Howard said.

"So employers who aren't aware of that probably are not trying to manage their workforce the best that they could," he said. "In other words, they may not be looking at the health care costs of their workforce (as well as they could), and they are not looking at what could make the work safer or healthier for older workers. Some employers don't even know the distribution of ages of the people that work for them."

In 2005, an American Society of Safety Engineers poll found that companies were not prepared for an aging workforce. But the situation may be more critical today because the Great Recession left even fewer baby boomers financially capable of retiring, said Terrie S. Norris, president of the Des Plaines, Illinois-based ASSE.

Simultaneously, employers generally have not helped employees adequately prepare for retirement, while the boomers, or people born between 1946 and 1964, are healthier and living longer than previous generations, Norris said.

The longer lifespan means more people will have to work longer.

Increasing medical costs also may force older workers to delay retirement, especially those with chronic medical conditions that can add to workplace health and safety concerns, Norris and other observers added.

Indeed, a series of surveys conducted by AARP over 13 years found consistently that baby boomers plan to work into their retirement years because of financial necessity, a need for health care coverage and other factors, such as personal enrichment.

AARP survey results from 2008, the organization's latest on the issue, revealed that 70 percent of U.S. residents planned to work into retirement. And that was conducted while the Great Recession was taking hold of the U.S. economy.

"So it really behooves the employer" to provide older workers with tools and work processes that reduce the probability of injuries, Norris said. "We need to take that into context in our safety programs: How do we keep older folks from injuring themselves?"

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