OHS AND THE OLDER WORKER: What’s Age Got To Do With It?

In most developed countries, the number of workers over age 55 will increase by nearly 40 percent, and the number of workers over age 65 will almost double over the next 10 years.  (BLS, Monthly Labor Review, November 2007).

These estimates reflect a long-term trend that began in the 1970s and continues today, a result of increased retirement ages, longer life spans, aging baby boomers, and changes in the economy.  And, with the recent economic downturn, the trend has gained momentum, as many “older workers”[1] seek post-layoff or post-retirement jobs to offset financial losses and/or to secure health benefits.  As the older worker population continues to grow, researchers seek to better understand how this phenomenon impacts safety and disability in the workplace.

Certain chronic conditions, such as obesity and osteoarthritis, are linked to increased risk of injury, greater severity, and longer recovery times in some workers.  So:

  • Can workplace and worker risk factors that are specific for occupational injury in older workers be identified in advance?
  • Could early identification of such risk factors lead to effective preventive measures?
  • Are employees who feel that they should retire, but are forced to continue working for financial and health care reasons, more prone to unfavourable injury and return-to-work outcomes?

A literature review reveals a high degree of variability in the changes in physical capacities associated with aging. And there is much variability among people of the same age. Certain physiological changes, such as gradual decreases in vision, hearing, peak strength, and peak aerobic capacity, are relatively predictable with aging. However, age-related changes in cognition, work ability, and presence of chronic illness are highly variable.

The increase in average life span over the past 20 years has been accompanied by higher rates of chronic illness.  Changes in cognitive abilities can occur due to aging but it is impossible to directly extrapolate a level of performance or risk based on age, alone. Just because a worker is age 62, doesn’t mean he or she is less physically capable on the job than his age-24 counterpart.  Work related factors such as experience, skill, maturity, and changes in work tasks over time, often place older workers at a relative advantage with respect to safety and productivity.

Studies show that, despite higher injury severity in workers over age 55, outcome measures such as duration of work disability, injury-related pain, decrease in work capacity, and the need for ongoing medical care after the injury were similar to those of younger workers.

In fact, older workers were actually more satisfied with their medical care and recovery than their younger counterparts. The data indicated that older workers had higher pre-injury job satisfaction, longer job tenure, greater employer attachment, and more positive responses from employers and co-workers after an injury, as well as fewer problems on returning to work.

The findings showed that the only significant difference in outcome associated with age was a higher incidence of injury-related financial problems – in the younger workers .

Revealing Individual Differences

In one study, researchers identified three distinct groups of older workers:

Group 1: Healthy Survivors – These are workers who are in excellent physical and mental health, have considerable experience and knowledge, and are often highly valued by their employers. When these workers suffer a job-related injury, they usually recover quickly and are brought back on the job promptly, performing a variety of alternate tasks until they are ready to go back to their usual position.

Group 2: Post-Retirement Workers – The workers in this group have already retired from a prior job and are often working in a completely different occupation. Sometimes these workers encounter problems because of inadequate training or a mismatch between their capabilities and the requirements of their job. They may be reluctant to return to this job after an injury.

Group 3: Job-Locked Workers – This group includes those who would very much like to retire or reduce their work hours, but are unable to do so because of economic/financial issues.

(Job lock refers to a worker’s inability to consider a more desirable job due to concerns about income or benefits loss.)

A study (Disability and Rehabilitation; Vol. 30, No. 26, 2008), indicated that retirement-related job lock affected more than half of those surveyed.  Compared to other older workers, job-locked older workers had experienced worse health prior to injury, and those health problems appeared to have a significant negative impact on their work ability both before and after the injury. Their pre-injury job satisfaction and relationships with co-workers were relatively worse, and they were more often in comparatively unskilled occupations. Furthermore, joblocked workers had more residual problems, worse long-term health outcomes, and more concerns about future employment following a work injury.

It seems that many of these job-locked workers were struggling at work before the injury, and thus appear to represent a priority group for interventions that might improve their health and work ability.

Generally speaking, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to maintaining a healthy and productive older workforce. Individualized solutions that promote flexibility, accommodation, and wellness will become increasingly important as the older worker population continues to expand.

From Research to Reality®; a publication of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety.

[1] What is the definition of “older worker”?

There is no exact distinction between an older worker and a younger worker. The U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act defines older workers as employed individuals aged 40 and above. However, scientists generally focus on age-related changes in work ability, which can start at a young age in some workers, but may not be present in others who are well into their 60s. In studies of manual work, older workers are generally defined as those aged 45 or older.1

1Pransky, G.S., Benjamin, K.L., Savageau, J.A.,et. al., “Outcomes in Work-Related Injuries:

A Comparison of Older and Younger Workers,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 47, No. 2, 2005