Older Workers Dying on Job in Greater Numbers

America is getting older, and many older people want to continue to work instead of retiring. Workplace safety is a growing concern as the workforce grows gray.

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Older Workers Dying on Job in Greater Numbers
5 Min Read April 13th, 2021

An analysis of federal statistics completed by the Associated Press indicates older people are dying on the job at a higher rate than that of the overall workforce. This is despite a decrease in the overall rate of workplace fatalities occurring.

It's a fact that people are living longer. Longevity creates the need for them to continue working at an older age for a multitude of reasons. It could be due to inadequate savings for retirement, the need to continue their health insurance benefits, or simply to hold on to the sense of job satisfaction and the stimulation and social contact that working provides.

So, as more and more baby boomers reject the idea of traditionally retiring by age 65 and instead keep working, it's a trend that is particularly alarming given the statistics. The U.S. government estimates that by 2024, as much as 25% of the labor market will be older workers.

Epidemiologist Ken Scott of the Denver Public Health Department says that the physical changes associated with aging have the potential to turn a workplace injury into a much more severe condition, possibly even a fatal one. 

"We expect that there will be more older workers increasing each year and this issue of elevated risk is something we should be paying close attention to," he said.

Older workers are at increased Risk

The Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit workplace discrimination based on age or disability. However, retaining qualified older workers with experience can outweigh the limitations that could come from their advanced age. 

Keeping older works safe, despite their age limitations, is essential for both employers and employees. 

According to Gerontologists (professionals who study the aging process), changes that occur when aging that could affect safety at work include reduced response times, gradually worsening hearing and vision impairment, issues with balance and coordination, and chronic medical issues such as muscle or bones problems like arthritis.

Workplace accidents of workers aged 55 and older that resulted in death increased by 8% in 2019. Alarmingly, this is the largest number of fatalities ever recorded for this age group.

In California alone, the rate of fatal accidents involving older employees in 2019 was 3.4 per 100,000 workers - a figure 60% higher than that of all workers.

Workplace Death Overall are Down – Older Workers the Exception

The Associated Press analysis showed the overall fatality rate for all workplace accidents - including workers 55 and older - decreased by 22% from 2006 to 2015. Nevertheless, the rate of workplace accident fatalities among older workers during the same time period was 50-65% higher than that of the general workforce (depending upon the year).

For example, according to the analysis, the number of fatalities across all workers in 2015 was 4,836, down from 5,480 in 2005. In contrast, on-the-job deaths among older workers slightly increased from 1,562 to 1,681, respectively.

The number of older people within the workforce also increased by 37% during that time period, compared with a rise of just 6% of the overall worker population.

This AP analysis was based upon annual estimates from the American Community Survey (which focuses on the working population) and data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census for Fatal Occupational Injuries. The data excludes any case where the cause of death was due to natural causes like a  stroke or heart attack.

It also examined the statistics regarding the types of accidents in which older members of the workforce died between 2011, the year the bureau altered its accident categorization, to 2015. They found several things in the data: 

  • Transportation accidents increased by 15%
  • Fatalities related to falls increased by 20%
  • Explosions and fires dropped by 8%
  • Contact with equipment and objects rose by 17%

The analysis reported that approximately 1 in 4 workplace fatalities related to fires and explosions between 2011 and 2015 were older workers.

Older Workers Report Physical Work Requirements are Challenging

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research published a poll that found that in 2013, 44% of older Americans reported that their job required some physical effort, either all or most of the time. 36% also said that it was harder to achieve their employment's physical requirements than it had been when they were younger.

The National Center for Productive Aging and Work is a relatively new organization that is part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is acutely aware of the need to address this growing concern and is pushing for changes to workplace laws to ensure that it is safer for older workers. 

Some suggested changes include mandatory increases in lighting to assist older workers who suffer from age-related weakened eyesight. Recommendations also include additional training and retraining where necessary.

Co-director for the Center, James Grosch, says, "We advocate to make workplaces as age-friendly as possible."

He said that the Center is prioritizing productive aging - how older people can be more effective so their wisdom can be leveraged in the workplace, according to Grosch.

Older Works are Usually Safer

Older workers are typically safer workers in that they bring more wisdom and experience to the job and are less likely to engage in risky workplace behaviors. Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves and send a clear message that workplaces need to be made safer for older employees. The significant increase in the numbers of older workers continues to rise, so the problem will only be greater in the years ahead.

Failure to take action for workplace safety for older workers will increase personal injury and wrongful death suits. Families will want to make sure their loved ones have access to the level of safety that they are entitled to in the workplace.

Health Care for Older Workers

Chronic Conditions and Aging Arthritis and hypertension are the two most common health conditions affecting older workers (aged 55+), according to the CDC, impacting 47% and 44%, respectfully. More than 75% of older people have at least one chronic health condition that requires management.

The number of health issues for older workers has implications for how and when workers can physically perform their duties. The CDC says higher morbidity can mean more absenteeism. Others don't feel well but show up to work regardless. 

All of us experience changes in our health as we get older. We see changes in our bodies as well. Preparing for these changes is something everyone can benefit from as the country grows older every year.

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About the Author

Holly Klamer is a seasoned writer who loves to create content related to aging issues and everything to do with senior living. She is a frequent contributor to many top online publications including Assisted Living Near Me, where she creates content that is specific to assisted living for older adults, as well as SeniorLivingFacilities.net, where she writes about common issues affecting senior citizens and provides senior living advice.

LTC News Contributor Holly Klamer

Holly Klamer

Contributor since December 23rd, 2020

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