The workforce is aging, so understanding the specific needs of older workers can help you keep them healthy and on the job. Here’s what you should know.
Several years ago trend-spotters started talking about the “brain drain” that would occur when skilled Baby Boomers start to retire. More recently, the upheaval in financial markets and the recession have changed the picture: employees who planned to retire need to keep working to build up their nest eggs.
Almost 12 percent of the civilian workforce is 55+ years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Since 2006 there has been a 26 percent increase in the number of workers 65 years and older. They represent a small but growing percentage of the workforce, and by 2016, the bureau projects they will account for nearly five percent of workers.
Mature workers offer companies many advantages: experience, commitment and a strong work ethic. They tend to roll with the punches, and they can offer important perspectives to younger workers.
Older Workers = Safer Workers
The BLS reports that the incidence of injuries (per 10,000 hours of full-time work) is lowest among workers 65+. Additionally, older workers in relatively hazardous manufacturing and construction-related industries have a lower frequency of workers’ comp claims than younger workers, according to the National Council of Compensation Insurers (NCCI).
Those statistics support the premise that older workers have more experience and are less likely to rush through work that requires attention to detail.
However, the picture isn’t entirely rosy for older workers.
When accidents occur, injuries are more likely to be severe. Medical expenses are more costly because older workers’ injuries tend to be more extensive and take longer to heal. NCCI estimates that medical costs are 26 percent higher for workers 65+. If a 60-year-old woman falls and breaks her wrist, it may be due partially to osteoporosis that has weakened her bones. A 20-year-old might only strain her wrist in the same fall.
The extra days that are lost on medical leave also contribute to indemnity costs for lost wages. NCCI reports that average indemnity payments per claim begin to increase at age 45, but then decline somewhat after age 65 — probably because workers who continue to work after 65 have relatively low salaries. Additionally, older workers tend to want to get back to work.
Although individual comp claims can be significant, the total number of 65+ workers continues to be small enough that they are not a significant driver of comp costs — less than three percent of claims, according to NCCI.
Understanding Older Workers
Older workers have health and wellness needs that differ from younger employees.
Physical strength peaks between 20 and 30 years of age, so older workers who do physical activity are working closer to their maximum capacity. Reaction time declines with age; eyesight and hearing also diminish. However, according to the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS), age is less a factor in physical health than other factors such as obesity, smoking, lack of exercise and diabetes.
Mental abilities also change as people age. Older workers have slower cognitive speed. According to DHHS, they retrieve information more slowly and learn more slowly. However, they are ultimately equally successful in learning new things and may have greater retention of new material.
Slip/trip/fall injures are the biggest risk to older workers, accounting for 47 percent of injuries, versus only 20 percent for all workers, according to BLS. Older workers are also more apt to have shoulder, arm and lower back injuries.
Employers should analyze jobs to make sure all employees, regardless of their age, are not continuously doing repetitive-motion activities and do not lift items that are too heavy for their specific strength. Tasks should be modified to prevent potential problems.
Employers should evaluate their lighting systems, ensure they have slip-resistant flooring and make sure their entrances, walkways and parking lots have smooth, non-slip surfaces that are well lit — basic loss control measures that will benefit all employees.
When training employees about new tools — whether it’s new machinery or computer software — it is important to realize that older workers need a slower-paced class, while young workers may need a follow-up refresher.
Wellness programs for employees of all ages can also have a positive impact on the severity of workers’ comp claims. A healthier employee generally recovers faster than one who is overweight and out of shape. Encourage employees to stop smoking, eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, including taking a walk at lunchtime. The fresh air will do them — and you — a world of good.