Health Promotion, Policy Shifts Needed to Protect Aging Workers

A report from the February 2009 Health Aging for Workers conference promotes a focus on workplace environments to maintain “work ability” as employees age, along with legislative fixes and research to fill in knowledge gaps for keeping workers healthy and productive.

The report of conference presentations and discussions among participants from the National Academies of Science, universities and research institutions, as well as representatives of professional associations, industry and labor, emphasized the health and well-being of workers, particularly older employees.

According to researchers using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, older workers are more severely injured and die with greater frequency from work-related injuries than younger workers. Older workers also have longer recovery periods than younger workers. These findings raise health care delivery and economic issues for the nation, as more workers are choosing to delay retirement due to collapsed 401(k) plans and savings. BLS uses workers age 55 and older in its calculations, although the rates rise sharply for those workers over age 65. Other agencies and organizations define the term as age 50 or 55 and up. The Department of Labor uses age 40 as a starting point for “older worker.”

“The issue of healthy aging is critically important as the U.S. economy is revitalized. As we go forward in time, the demand for workers will grow but fewer workers will be entering the work force and a larger proportion of the work force will be older. This is a simple reality of demographics,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “Having a healthy, productive work force will help sustain economic growth in the decades ahead. We must take steps now to help all workers stay safe and healthy at work as they age. We must also take steps to address the special needs of older workers who, more and more, will be staying on the job past traditional retirement age.”

Construction Focus

The conference paid particular attention to workers in physically demanding jobs, such as construction and health care. Health care cost-containment has meant longer work hours and increased stress among health care workers, which has led to a shortage of nurses. Thirty-nine percent of RNs were 45 years or older in 2002.

Construction workers already suffer the highest number of fatalities in any U.S. industry. But the death rate among construction workers 55 years and older was nearly 80 percent higher than that of construction workers under 35 in 2007. And like the rest of the work force, the average age of a construction worker is rising. The average age was 40.4 in 2008, which is 4.4 years older than in 1985. The average retirement age among construction workers is 61.

“Our nation loses an average of four construction workers every workday to a job-related incident – and that’s been consistent for more than a decade,” said Pete Stafford, executive director of CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training, one of the conference’s co-sponsors. “As we start to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and venture into green jobs, we want to make sure jobsites do not become a source of pain and death for older workers who have so much to contribute, especially in mentoring younger workers.”

Howard believes the conference confirms and expands on a 2004 report from the National Academies of Science that recognized the deteriorating conditions facing an aging work force, to the detriment of workers, their families and businesses. “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” made clear recommendations to increase research efforts toward preventing work-related injury, illness and fatality among aging workers. These recommendations have yet to be adopted.

“The discussions and recommendations from the conference point to steps that can be taken to address needs identified in the 2004 report that were never acted upon,” said Jordan Barab, acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. “As those discussions make clear, a sustainable work force will be a critical component of a secure and prosperous 21st century economy. The work we do now is an investment in a stronger work force for tomorrow.”

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