Managed Physical Medicine

Is the Aging Workforce Really a Workers’ Comp Risk?

By Kevin Basile, PT, OCS, MTC, Director of Provider Relations Physical Medicine

As more Americans postpone retirement, employers are taking steps to optimize working conditions for their employees.

Companies across the country are embracing their senior workforce, recognizing the expertise, loyalty, and mentorship experienced employees bring to the table. However, the unprecedented demographic shift has employers and payers alike wondering whether workers’ compensation loss costs will also experience an upward swing.

In 1964, baby boomers made up a staggering 40 percent of the population. Fast-forward half a century and boomers are surprising the census yet again—this time with a surge in the workforce. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of active American workers age 55 or older skyrocketed by 47.1 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this group’s share will increase to one-quarter of the workforce by 2024.

In 2012, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) stated that the impact of an aging workforce on loss costs may be less negative than previously believed. In a report released that same year, the NCCI revealed that injury rates for workers age 45 and older dropped by 50 percent between 1994 and 2009, due at least in part to workplace safety initiatives.

Unfortunately, the positive trend in frequency rates was counterbalanced by an increase in severity. Rotator cuff and knee injuries top the list of workers’ comp claims among the 55+ crowd. On their own, these injuries can be difficult to bounce back from, but common effects of aging such as muscle deterioration, respiratory inefficiency, and comorbidities like diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis can further lengthen the road to recovery.

So, what can employers do to set up older employees for success – and safety – on the job?

CLOSE GAPS

The aging process makes certain tasks, such as those requiring exceptional flexibility and balance, harder for us to do. As a result, gaps between a job’s demands and a worker’s capabilities may form over time.

To close these gaps, employers should review the distribution of work at their company and consider how they might capitalize on the expertise and strengths of aging employees while keeping their physical, psychological, and physiological needs in mind. Here a few options to consider:

  • Offer more frequent breaks throughout the workday.
  • Minimize shift work and increase morning hours to allow older workers to punch the clock at optimal times
  • Institute a job rotation system so an older worker is alternating tasks (rather than overexerting the same muscles throughout the day)
RETOOL YOUR EQUIPMENT

Although employees come and go, it is not uncommon for workstations to go unchanged for many years. It is important to periodically review workspace configurations to ensure they are not exacerbating workplace injury.

Physical therapists and occupational health consultants can work with employers to conduct an ergonomic assessment and make suggestions which might include:

  • Raise work surface areas or countertops
  • Reconfigure at-hand work materials to minimize repetitive squatting, kneeling or twisting
  • Reposition overhead equipment to waist-to-chest level
  • Replace thin handles with thicker handles for better control
  • Redesign equipment for more efficient exit/entry to minimize contortion
EMPOWER YOUR EMPLOYEES

A comprehensive occupational training and education program is critical to workplace safety, but more and more companies are also prioritizing health and wellness off the clock. After all, a more physically fit worker has better success in recovering from an injury.

Here are just a few ways employers can encourage workers to take health and safety into their own hands:

  • Initiate an on-site strength and conditioning program to minimize workplace injury
  • Offer partial or full payment for a local health club membership, contingent upon a minimum number of visits
  • Build a culture of wellness in the workplace by offering healthier food options and opportunities for light physical activity (e.g., walking meetings) throughout the day

These operational changes should not be viewed solely as interventions, but as investments with long-term returns. By looking out for the well-being of our aging workforce, we effectively create safer work environments and reduce costs while securing a tried-and-true source of wisdom, dedication, and leadership in our industries for years to come.