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How an Aging Workforce May Affect Safety

Derek Tokarz

Derek Tokarz

Certified in Safety Management Group's Training in Fall Protection

two elderly men looking at a computer screen

In the United States, people are working past age 65 in increasing numbers, with some workers saying they have no plans to retire. In May 2016, 18.9 percent of people age 65 and older were employed – that’s the highest number of post-retirement-age workers the U.S. has ever recorded.

These older workers may be invaluable, especially in skilled trades, manufacturing and industrial occupations, where new workers learn through training and apprenticeships. But an aging workforce also raises questions about whether workplace injuries will become more prevalent and more serious.

Age as a Risk Factor

In 2014, workers age 65 and older had the lowest per-capita injury rate among any age group; however, when they are injured on the job, they tend to suffer more serious consequences than their younger peers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics considers days away from work as a key measure of illness or injury severity. BLS figures released in 2015 showed that workers age 65 and older had a median of 17 days away from work to recover from workplace injuries. Workers age 16 to 19 had the lowest median days away from work, at 4, with the recovery time increasing incrementally for each age group.

As the human body ages, hearing and vision worsen, and balance and mobility may deteriorate, as well. The changes that come with aging may, in part, explain why workers older than 65 suffer from slips, trips and falls at a rate almost double that of other age groups.

Protecting Workers

In the December 2015 issue of Safety+Health magazine, risk control services manager Bill Spiers said that shifting older workers away from high-hazard jobs is not the way to address concerns about their safety. Instead, he recommended employers look at accommodations that can make the workplace safer for all employees, which by extension, would enhance protections for older workers.

Given that slips, trips and falls injure many workers of all ages, companies may be able to reduce on-the-job accidents by outfitting workplaces with items such as non-skid rubber mats, hand rails and fall protection equipment for workers using platforms or ladders.

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