Protecting the Safety of an Aging Workforce

The United States entered 2016 with a growing population – more than 322 million individuals by the latest estimates, with a new person every 13 seconds. The 76.1 million baby boomers living in the country now represent more than 23 percent of the population. The U.S. workforce, however, is a different story. Baby boomers, individuals between 52 and 71 years old, make up more than 27 percent of the workforce, and projections don’t show that changing drastically in the coming years.

Only 24 percent of workers are expecting to retire before they turn 65, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that by 2030, 25 percent of all workers will be older than 55. In 1950, this same age group made up 17 percent of the workforce. In 2010, workers 55 years old and older made up 20 percent of the workforce.

Advances in medical technology and health care, financial need, and the enjoyment of working have become the top reasons why many individuals are expected to continue working later in life. However, there is no question that as people age they face more physical challenges and roadblocks. Injuries to individual body parts, health issues with entire body systems, or declining mental and information processing abilities can be barriers to success for aging workers.

Over the past few years, as data about baby boomers in the workforce becomes more readily available, we’re able to see that challenges are not only for the baby boomers as employees but also for the companies employing baby boomers. One of the primary concerns is the cost of on-the-job injuries when analyzing workers’ compensation claims.

Baby boomers do not necessarily have the highest number of workers compensation claims, but have a higher cost per claim, on average. In some instances, this could be much higher. One study shows that the average cost per claim for workers under 45 years old was less than $10,000, while the average cost for workers over 45 was nearly $20,000.

Given the repercussions to the individual, and the high cost to the company, no one wants to hire an employee who is going to get hurt. So, what can an employer do without violating age discrimination laws?

Hiring managers must use the tools at their disposal to gauge the physical abilities of the prospective employee.  The very best tools a hiring manager has are their eyes and ears. Stated another way, the key to hiring effectively and fairly is being attentive to clues presented by the prospective employee during the interview process.  For example, how does the candidate move? Are the movements fluid or strained?  Does the candidate show any pain with regular, everyday movements?  Do they mention physical issues when describing past jobs?

As is often the case, there may be few clues as to the physical capacity of a prospective employee, which makes placement decisions challenging. While it’s generally ill advised to ask about injuries, asking if the candidate has any physical limitations to that particular job is often acceptable. One effective tool that should be deployed, where allowed by local regulation, is the Pre Employment, Post Offer Medical Questionnaire.

Beyond the concepts presented above, there are a few other tactics employers can take when making placements.

  • Do your homework. Understand, in detail, the physical requirements of each job for which you are hiring.
  • Be proactive. Analyze these demands, from movement repetition, to necessary strength, and partner with the worker to seek out cost-effective, workable solutions that make the job safer for the employee.
  • Look for appropriate placements. Providing a safe work environment for all workers, but especially aging workers, hinges on providing jobs that are well aligned with their physical and mental abilities. For workers already in a position, this may mean reassigning workers.
  • Encourage flexibility. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has noted that working fewer than 40 hours a week, remote work, and non-traditional jobs are growing in popularity. Where possible, consider allowing older workers to set an alternative schedule that may provide a healthier, safer option.

Balancing a safe work environment placement without intended or perceived discrimination against the employee can seem difficult, but is necessary to give employees a safe, appropriate placement.

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