Safety issues for aging construction workers

February 12, 2014  |  News & Trends

Safety issues for older construction workersOlder construction workers face significant safety risks on the job site. Those risks appear to be growing, due to several demographic and economic factors.

According to The Center for Construction Research & Training (CPWR), the average age of construction workers in the U.S. has crept steadily higher - 5.5 years older than 25 years ago. As a result, aging baby boomers face a growing number of on-the-job injuries. In 1992, the largest percentage of fatal and non-fatal work injuries was to those aged 25-34 years. That age group has shifted to 45-54 in 2010, says CWPR.

The risks to older workers are likely to continue growing, as many of them postpone retirement and stay active in the workforce longer. Average retirement age in the construction industry has increased to 61.4 in 2006 from 59.4 in 1994, according to CWPR's Healthy Aging for a Sustainable Workforce report (2009).

In addition, as the construction market begins to recover, many experienced construction workers are likely re-enter the job market - and some of them aren't in very good physical shape, increasing their odds of being injured on the job.

What this means in terms of job site safety

According to a variety of sources, typical health issues for older construction workers include:

  • Muscle and back strains
  • Arthritis and joint problems
  • Hypertension
  • Deteriorating hearing and vision
  • Other acute and chronic health conditions that can be aggravated by occupational activities

Older workers tend to take longer to recover from injuries. According to the federal Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, the median number of days away from work due to work-related injuries nearly doubles when a construction worker turns 65. A Colorado State University study determined that expenses for disability treatment and missed work for a 65 year old are three times that of a 24 year old. Most of that cost increase is in the form of indemnity costs, disability and out-of-work payments.

The consequences of injury are often more severe for older workers, according to CPWR's research. Older workers tend to sustain more severe injuries than younger workers and require more days away from work to recover. Death resulting from work-related injuries occurs at higher rates among older workers than younger ones. There were 5.2 fatalities per 100,000 full time workers for falls among workers 55 and older compared to 3.1 fatalities per 100,000 full time workers in the age group 15-34 years and 3.9 fatalities per full time 100,000 workers in the age group 35-54 years, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

What can construction employers do?

Your firm's health and employment policies need to increasingly take into account the needs and capabilities of older workers. Consider modified task assignments, work hours, work site design and performance expectations that are appropriate for their physical abilities.

Conduct a pre-placement/post-offer test (POET) to help ensure that the people you hire are properly matched to the physical requirements of the jobs for which they have been hired. It's also an effective tool to screen out candidates with prior injuries or physical limitations that may prevent them from performing heavy work. In addition, it helps you establish a baseline health status, so if an employee is injured on the job, you can limit your liability to getting him or her back to the condition he or she was at when hired.

A program of stretching before working can help decrease the risk of injury and can lead to improved work performance. It can also lead to an increased range of motion in the joints, which leads to greater flexibility when working.

Put in place an effective return-to-work policy which identifies:

  • Responsibilities and procedures for claim reporting and ongoing contact with the injured employee
  • Ergonomic risk assessments to identify any necessary job modifications
  • Temporary transitional work assignments
  • Reasonable job accommodations for disabled workers

What's your policy for aging workers? If you don't have one yet, perhaps it's time to start thinking about creating one " before someone gets hurt!


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