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Working Longer – Keeping Older Workers Safe and Productive

Recent surveys by the Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Watson Wyatt have found that an increasing number of employees plan to delay their planned retirement. Of those now age 50-64, more than half plan to work at least three years more than they previously expected – past age 65 in most cases. Presenters at a recent Business Insurance Webinar reported that between 2006 and 2016 there will be an 83% growth in the number of workers age 65 or more in the workplace, and that they will account for 6.5% of work hours in the U. S. by that time.

Financial need is one reason people plan to work longer; other reasons include increased life expectancy, improved management of chronic disease, availability of employer-provided health insurance, and the simple desire to remain active and valuable.
Many employers believe older workers are more susceptible than younger workers to injury in the workplace, and worry that an aging workforce increases the risk of disability and lost work time. Other issues sometimes come up, too: Age Lessons, a Chicago-based consulting firm, conducted 50 interviews with workers over the age of 50. Age Lessons President Laurel Kennedy reported, “Older workers believe that younger associates drop them from critical informal communication networks,” and that organizations often assume that older workers are unwilling to accept new challenges, and so foreclose career paths and training opportunities.
Perception and reality
Are older workers really at greater risk of injury, or less creative and energetic than younger workers? Not according to workers’ compensation statistics, and the research of occupational medicine specialists, industrial designers, and behavioral psychologists. The National Council on Compensation Insurance has found that the frequency of injury for older workers is lower than for younger workers, although the duration of a lost-time injury tends to be greater. An extensive study by PMA Insurance Group reached a similar conclusion.
Aging can affect strength, range of motion, sensory acuity, and the time required for an injury to heal, but these limitations are offset by experience, safety consciousness, and attentiveness to the task at hand, research has found. These characteristics reduce accident frequency.
U. S. Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger, describing to CBS anchor Katie Couric how he managed to pilot the crippled Flight 1549 safely into the Hudson a week before his 58th birthday, said, “For forty-two years I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 (2009) the balance was sufficient that I could make a very large withdrawal.” Incidentally, from 1960-2007, Federal Aviation Administration regulations required commercial pilots to retire at age 60. The limit was raised to 65 in 2007, to conform with standards of most other countries.
What about willingness to embrace new procedures, new projects, new technology, etc.? One Bureau of Labor Statistics report notes that older workers often question new ways of doing things, but that “they are just as adaptable once they understand the reason for changes. They are more likely to ask ‘why?’ because they have often seen past changes in processes and procedures abandoned in midstream when they didn’t bring expected rewards quickly enough.”
Areas to address
Slips and falls account for more than a third of all injuries sustained by workers 65 and older. Crashes at intersections, or when merging or changing lanes, also are more common among older drivers than younger ones. The same is true of ergonomic injuries. These are areas where workplace design and maintenance, training, and individual accommodation can help reduce the risk of injury to workers of any age.
CIMA Risk Control Services is available on a fee basis to help you evaluate your workplace and address these kinds of risk exposures. Contact your CIMA Account Executive or call us at 703.739.9300. (See also Resources, below.)
There are common hazards you might be able to identify yourself. For example, to help prevent slips and falls, make sure your floor coverings are appropriate for the work environment, and kept clean and free of obstructions. Is lighting adequate, so that differences in elevation are easy to see? Are risers on stairs of uniform height, and wide enough? Can the edge of the stairs be seen easily? If items must be stacked, are they stacked to an easily-visible height? Are ladders or stepstools available when needed, and do employees know to use them? Are handrails secure? Is signage large enough?
Getting back to the documented complaint that older workers often feel left out of the communication loop…Think about how your work teams are organized. Have they become too stratified, by age? If texting, online conferences, social media and other newer communication methods have become the norm, has everyone been encouraged to use them, and shown how? (On the other side of the coin, if you still believe that a face-to-face conversation or a phone call sometimes beats a volley of emails or text messages, have younger workers gotten that message?) When there are opportunities for specialized training and advancement, make sure they are presented to all employees. It’s not just the fair thing to do, it also gives you the maximum opportunity to find the best person for each position. And it can help you avoid a discrimination charge under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Return-to-work programs
Every employee needs to understand that if he or she is injured, your policy is that they will return to productive work as soon as possible
– even if that means temporary modified duty, reassignment, or some other form of accommodation. A landmark 2004 study by occupational medicine specialist Dr. Glenn Pransky concluded that the employer’s response to the injury, and the degree of attachment the worker feels to his or her employment, are far more important than the severity of injury. Communication – with medical providers and your workers’ compensation insurer, and between the employee and the supervisor – is an essential component of a successful return-to-work program.
Kathleen Egan and Kenneth Mitchell, return-to-work specialists with disability insurer Unum, wrote in Workforce Management magazine, “Recovery progresses quickly and successfully when there is a combination of early mobilization treatment and increased transitions back to a normal way of living. Workplace managers play a key role in the recovery process when they involve the physician and the employee in return-to-work planning and a discussion of the need for temporary modifications in the workplace.”
Again, our CIMA Risk Control Services staff will be happy to help you develop a return-to-work plan that suits your organization.
William R. Henry is director of communication for The CIMA Companies, an insurance and risk management firm with offices in the Washington and Baltimore areas – http://www.cimaworld.com