Ken Scott, MPH, and Lee Newman, MD, MA, FCCP, FACOEM – members of the Association of Occupational Health Professionals in Healthcare (AOHP) – are the first to publish research about the impact of aging on the types and severity of injuries experienced by healthcare workers in the United States. “The Aging Healthcare Workforce: Employment and Occupational Injuries Among Workers in US Private Hospitals During 2010” was published in the Fall 2013 AOHP Journal.
“The healthcare workforce is aging, but occupational health professionals who work in healthcare are ill-prepared to protect this aging workforce,” Newman explains. “There haven’t been many studies that have examined the relationships between age and occupational injury risks among healthcare workers.”
The newly published study demonstrates that as healthcare workers age, their risks for work-related injuries change significantly.
“We know from other studies that patterns of occupational injuries and illnesses can change over employees' working lives,” notes Scott. “We wanted to see whether hospitals in the United States experienced the same patterns that have been observed in other sectors of the economy. Understanding the patterns of occupational injuries will help us prepare for the demographic shift that’s already underway in healthcare.”
As more and more healthcare workers delay retirement at 65, he adds, employers will need to adjust their programs, policies and practices to optimize the effectiveness of both older and younger workers.
The study analyzes patterns of age-related occupational injuries using data from the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and the Current Population Survey. It provides useful benchmarks against which organizations can compare the age distributions of their own workforces.
“Our analyses suggest that the injury patterns are different for younger and older workers,” says Scott.
For example, workers between 18 and 19 years of age are the most likely age group to be injured on the job because of contact with objects or equipment. The same is true for overexertion injuries
“On the other hand,” he adds, “injuries due to slips, trips and falls become more frequent as employees age. The risk of a slip, trip and fall injury was about five times higher among workers 65+ than workers age 18-19.”
Patterns of Injuries
The differences in the patterns of injuries probably can be explained by a few things, according to Newman. As workers age, their physical abilities change. Reaction time, balance and strength are among some of the physical characteristics that change over time.
However, “the physical demands of the jobs that workers do changes with age, too.,” he adds. “Older workers are more likely to be in supervisory roles rather than physically demanding ones, for example, so their exposures are different. Also, we know from other research that on-the-job experience plays a role in reducing injury risk.”
Because young workers often also are new workers, inexperience may explain some of the higher injury rates among younger employees.
“Regardless, the degree to which an aging workforce impacts an employer’s bottom line is going to be influenced by many factors,” says Newman. “Considering that nearly 18 percent of the private U.S. hospital workforce is within 10 years of turning 65, healthcare organizations would be well-advised to analyze their workforce demographics – as well as safety and wellness practices, programs and policies – that may keep older hospital workers healthy, safe and productive on the job.”