As Richmond workers’ compensation attorneys, we represent employees who have been injured on the job in Virginia. One often-overlooked risk factor that employers sometimes don’t take into consideration is the specific challenges employees face as they age.
For decades, the U.S. population has been aging, particularly as those in the Baby Boomer generation enter their golden years; unsurprisingly, the average age of the American worker has been steadily increasing. In 1994, the median age of U.S. employees was 37.7 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That median age climbed to 40.3 years in 2004 and to 41.9 years in 2014. Fast forward a few years and by 2024, the median age of U.S. workers is expected to increase to 42.4 years old. The good news is, older workers offer many contributions to the workplace, including greater institutional knowledge and life experience that makes them valuable mentors for younger employees.
In addition to having an aging population throughout the U.S., many seniors have returned to the workforce due to underperforming retirement plans, economic recessions, and other financial reasons. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015, nearly twice as many workers aged 65 and above were employed than teenage workers (8.4 million vs. 4.7 million). The Bureau also predicts that by 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans aged 55 and above will be employed. That will mean that roughly 40 million workers – that’s more than 25 percent of the entire U.S. labor force – will be over the age of 55, an increase of 43 percent since 2008. Apparently, we aren’t as young as we used to be.
To avoid workplace injury, employees and employers must be aware that older workers face different workplace dangers than their younger coworkers. An older employee is more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, which impact 47 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of workers over the age of 55. While those chronic conditions are noteworthy, the greater risk to mature workers are injuries sustained from falls, which are particularly frequent in construction work but are possible in every workplace situation.
Mature workers have slower reflexes and can have diminished strength and flexibility, which combine to make injuries sustained from falls more serious than those experienced by younger employees. An older employee will likely require a longer recovery time after an injury than a younger colleague, which negatively impacts both the employee and the employer. Supervisors and managers should create careful return-to-work plans for older employees.
As Richmond workers’ compensation lawyers, we’ve seen the life-altering injuries that can result when workers of any age – from youthful to mature – experience unsafe conditions in the workplace. It isn’t necessarily expensive for employers to protect the safety of their older workers, it just requires some additional planning. For example, employers can help reduce the incidence of tiredness and exhaustion by implementing such programs as flexible work schedules, job sharing and telecommuting. In addition, flexibility with the type of tasks assigned can also benefit the employee: repetitive and sedentary tasks are not ideal for the aging employee.
Simple infrastructure improvements such as appropriate lighting and secure flooring can decrease the risk of accidents. Supportive and adjustable seating, upright workstations and rest breaks can also be beneficial for a mature worker. Employers should take great care in eliminating any hazards that might cause an employee to trip or slip (such as loose cables, cords or spilled liquids). Careful consideration of workplace risks not only keeps older workers safe but also protects the entire employee base in a company.
Health education is another important element: employers should promote the benefits of nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation programs. Walking groups, workplace yoga, exercise classes, or fitness challenges can also encourage an active, healthy lifestyle linked with longevity and reduced insurance costs. These healthy activities can provide much-needed breaks for stress reduction.
Supervisors should be trained to appropriately manage their aging workforce and consider their needs when arranging schedules, skills training and stress management. Retaining older workers is beneficial to both the employer and employee, and keeping them safe is both easy and essential.