About 18 months ago, the results of the work of Associated Press reporters brought to light the apparent compounding effects of dangerous workplaces and older workers. Maria Ines Zamudio and Michelle Minkoff conducted research under a program called Working Longer, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. In August of 2017, they presented findings showing that, while the number of workplace fatalities had thankfully dropped, older people were losing their lives on the job more frequently.
According to Zamudio and Minkoff, the workplace fatality rate for all workers, regardless of age, dropped by over 20 percent between 2006 and 2015.
But, during that same time, depending on the year, the rate of fatal accidents among workers 55 years of age or older was 50 percent to two-thirds higher than for all workers.
In that same period, the annual number of deaths among all US workers dropped about 18 percent. But on-the-job fatalities of older workers increased, from 1,562 in 2005 to 1,681 ten years later. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census for Fatal Occupational Injuries, about one-third of the 4,836 fatal workplace accidents reported nationally in 2015 involved a worker 55 and older.
One of the reasons is that older workers lose some of their natural ability to defend themselves against accidents. The aging process, by default, adds risk to each worker’s career. As we get older, our vision and hearing typically decline, and our reaction time to events around us gets slower. As a result, someone crossing a distribution center floor may not hear the “beep-beep” of a forklift in reverse as early as they might have when they were younger. And they might not move as quickly to avoid a collision when they do hear an alert. The result could be a serious injury, one that is fatal to an older worker, particularly if they suffer from chronic medical problems.
Another reason for more fatalities of older workers is that there simply are more of them than perhaps any other time in US industrial history. In the decade span noted above, there was a 6 percent rise in the workforce population. But the number of 55-plus workers in the workforce grew by more than one-third – 37 percent.
An entire generation now works longer than the previous, many times ignoring the historically-prescribed retirement age of 65 to continue working into their 70s. Many baby-boomers see this as a way to stay active and productive in their later years, and a great number take on second careers after a 30-year term at their original vocation. “Mature newcomers” may bring very helpful insight, experience, and ideas to a workplace. And older folks are better at self-care and wellness than preceding generations, creating a range of physical abilities within that demographic, so employers are cautioned not to discriminate between those under any age benchmark and those who are older. But, logically, a healthy lifestyle after a person passes 55 can only curtail the effects of aging so much. The older worker who participates in physical work tasks does appear to have a greater chance of being harmed than a younger peer.
EHS managers may be well-served to kindly consult with workers at particular ages. Just a simple “how do you feel today?” or “taking care of yourself?” can make a difference. And, within job teams, it might be a good idea to honestly consider the age and health of team members when delineating tasks.
Findlay All Hazards makes a practice of considering every aspect of a client’s workforce when helping custom design or improve safety programs and training. Talk to us today about how our Custom Corporate Training services can help you improve your organization’s working environment for everyone.