Aging workforce highlights workplace safety: Companies need to adapt as more employees stay on the job past 65

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DULUTH—The wave of baby boomers leaving the workforce is cresting as the largest generation of American workers continues to reach retirement age. Yet while the number of employees between ages 55 and 65 will peak over the next decade, many will remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age, by choice or necessity.

That can be dangerous.

In recent years at least half of all workplace deaths in Minnesota happened to those age 55 and older, and those 65 and older die from workplace injuries at far higher rates than other age groups, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's not that older employees are hurt more often than younger workers. But a BLS report says that in many cases "the nature of the injury suffered by an older worker is more severe than that suffered by younger workers," causing them to need more time off work to recover.

That raises concerns about the health and safety of those workers, but it also highlights how ill-prepared modern workplaces might be for an aging labor force.

"There exists a considerable gap between what we know about the changes that accompany the aging process and what organizations are actually doing, and should be doing, to address these changes across all age groups," says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

'Aging-friendly workplace'

By the end of the decade an extra 36,000 Minnesotans older than 65 will be working or looking for a job, according to the state Demographic Center. By 2030, that number jumps to 90,000.

This means the time to build an "aging-friendly workplace," as the National Center for Productive Aging and Work puts it, is now.

"Primary prevention is important," center co-director Jim Grosch said in a presentation last year. "We often say in public health we want to prevent the problem."

The problem is thus: Every day about 200 workers are injured on the job in Minnesota, and half of those incidents require employees to take time off or get reassigned, according to the Minnesota Safety Council. And while the rates of workplace injuries among older workers have been going down, the actual number of incidents is rising due to the booming population of workers who are 55 and older.

"There are a lot of companies that suffer from the loss of good workers from debilitating injury," said National Center for Productive Aging and Work co-director Juliann Scholl.

To prevent this, the center said managing hazards and paying attention to lighting, noise and ergonomics are important for workers of all ages — but especially as hearing, vision and balance may be compromised with advanced age. Scholl said companies should set "goals that are large enough to make an impact, but manageable enough to be accomplished."

Many injuries or deaths can accompany the strain of manual labor or accidents with machinery, but in winter especially it's slips, trips and falls, as many a safety training video has warned us about.

"It's in the parking lot. It is those old common sense things that come home to roost," said Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, a group that had its start in Duluth 90 years ago. "Most workplaces have done a good job dealing with machine guarding and hazardous chemical management, but our most active members are actively de-icing their parking lot."

Again, BLS data shows older workers don't necessarily get injured at higher rates than younger employees, but as a fire chief recently told Aasen: "My guys are getting old; they're getting hurt; and it's taking them a while to come back."

In 2016 it took an average of 14 days for a worker 65 and older to get back to work after an injury, up from 12 days for those 55 to 64. Workers 16 to 44 took an average of four to nine days to recover.

There has always been an economic incentive to keeping workers healthy, but as unemployment rates have bottomed out it's even more essential for firms to hold on to the employees they have.

"More and more companies are realizing and actively talking about the self-interested economic value of not having an employee get hurt," Aasen said. "It's just kind of elevating this notion that you want them to go home safe so they can go home to their family — and so they can come back."

Shared responsibility

Here's the trade-off with aging at work — injuries might hurt more, but you're probably much better at your job compared to someone without 30 years of experience.

Maybe too good.

"Employees working at a place for a certain number of years — they know shortcuts and how to get the job done quickly and efficiently," said Tyrone Taylor, director of workplace safety consultation at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. "Sometimes those bad habits lead to accidents."

Even if employers do everything perfectly to protect worker safety, workers have a shared responsibility to keep themselves out of the hospital. And as workers age, those responsibilities change.

"I would suggest to an aging workforce to know their limitations," Taylor said. "Overexertion and fatigue play a big part in some of the injuries that OSHA deals with."

That can be tough, as Aasen points out — "Even if I can think I can do something, how good a judge am I to know I really can?"

Employers "need to be proactive to make sure the job fits the employee," Taylor said, though employees should also watch their personal health.

Most people who work up to and past 65 are healthy enough to do so, because others will "self-select" out of the workforce.

"I am seeing more workers in the 70-plus age range who have chosen not to retire," said Dr. Douglas Wendland at St. Luke's Occupational Health Clinic in Duluth. "They tend to self-select toward things that aren't as physically demanding," though BLS data show an increasing number are working full-time.

Isolating workers by age alone, Wendland says, does not go far enough in examining and preventing injury or death in the workplace, as each industry carries its own set of risks. While agriculture has the highest rates of workers older than 65, construction, trucking and manufacturing have seen sharper-than-average increases in older workers, according to the Census Bureau.

In any industry, Wendland notes that when employee-employer relations are better — and they do tend to improve with age — the health outcomes are better.

"Looking at things like back injuries, one of the best predictors of return to work after a back injury is an employee's attitude toward his employer," Wendland said. "It neutralizes a lot of those medical issues."

No matter how long it takes to recover, the doctor said people eventually return to work at the same rates across all ages after injuries.

So if all of this discourages people from continuing work or employers from hiring older workers — which is against the law anyway — Wendland said that shouldn't be the case.

"There's not a good scientific reason to discriminate against them."

 Trucking company working to keep drivers healthy

Truckers are already older, on average, than workers in many other industries. And with a shortage of drivers around the country, there may be incentive for them to stay behind the wheel past age 65.

In response — and in preparation — Halvor Lines in Superior is doing everything it can to keep those drivers healthy.

"One of the things that Halvor Lines has had in place since 2013 is a comprehensive wellness program," said Adam Lang, the trucking firm's chief risk officer. "More companies are doing it, but when you find it in the trucking industry you realize you've found a special fleet. It's going to have to become the new norm because of the age of our drivers, the age of our workforce."

What started with gym memberships for all employees has grown to include a wellness coordinator on staff; free portable stairs and pulleys to take on the road; in-truck fridges for packing healthy meals; and standing desks for office-based employees.

"The wellness program has expanded to include financial wellness, spiritual wellness and stress management," Lang said.

A 2012 review of workplace wellness studies by the Health Promotion Journal found that "it is reasonable to conclude that worksite health promotion represents one of the most effective strategies for reducing medical costs and absenteeism." Since Wisconsin's Demographic Services Center is projecting 1.5 million residents over 65 by 2030, and nearly a quarter of them may be working, these strategies could go a long way toward preventing injuries or death in older workers.

Halvor Lines is also moving toward fifth-wheel air release in its fleet, which doesn't require drivers to exert themselves to release a trailer; better seats; and air-ride, which Lang said is "getting to be pretty standard in the industry."

"I'm very excited to see what the next five years brings in terms of driver safety and technology," he said.

Halvor also offers biometric screening that lets employees dig a little deeper into their health than a physical — and it lets the company track aggregate, though not individual, health trends.

"We get that and ask how can we improve," Lang said. "It's a cultural mindset, and it starts at the top — everyone here looks up to (company president) Jon Vinje. He's invested in us."