By Matt Gilmore, CSP CFPS ARM Risk Services Leader, Central Region and David Chmiel, Senior Vice President Claims 

The "work-life" span of today's worker is five to seven years longer than it was in 2000.  For many reasons, people are working longer and retirement is no longer a predictable event.  Recent studies by the Department of Labor show that the labor participation of workers ages 65 and over is expected to increase in the next seven to 10 years along with a decreased participation rate from workers ages 16 to 54.

While older workers bring valuable knowledge and experience to employers, they may also present an unintended risk in the form of additional exposure to injuries related to bending, reaching, manual material handling and repetitive motion.  Tasks that once may have been considered "a younger man's job" are now being performed by older workers. 

Understanding where your employees face the greatest risk and taking the proper steps to reduce those risks is the first step in maximizing the performance of your workforce.   The second step is to be aware of the potential litigation risk associated with age discrimination.  An employer can be held liable for age discrimination if their workplace policies impact older workers to a greater degree than younger workers, even where there is no intent to discriminate.  Your goal should be to create a work environment that accommodates all ages.

Workers' Compensation Costs - A Mixed Picture 

Current data shows that WC Severity is typically 50% greater with workers 45-64 than younger workers due to increased indemnity costs resulting from higher wages and higher medical costs for the experienced worker.  Higher medical costs are due to greater utilization of diagnostics and more frequent treatment sessions than younger workers.  However, recent data from the NCCI shows that the likelihood of injury for workers 16-30 years of age is only 5% greater than workers ages 45-64, a gap that has narrowed in recent years. 

On the positive side, litigation and its associated costs are lower with older workers than in previous years.  Although they may take longer to heal, older workers are more apt to "want" to come back to the workplace and may have a greater degree of loyalty to their employer.  Increasing your communication and proactive involvement in managing workers' compensation claims is essential to reducing potential litigation costs. 

Types of Injuries 

While the younger population typically reports a higher frequency of back injuries, NCCI data illustrates that the aging population is reporting high incidence of injuries related to rotator cuffs and knees.  These types of injuries may create a challenge to employers to find modified work involving tasks that require standing, reaching, pushing and pulling. 

In consideration of its aging worker population, employers need to re-evaluate their available job descriptions and written light duty/restricted duties which can be implemented as part of a return-to-work program.  By modifying the original job to allow for medically approved restrictions, you can minimize lost time and improve worker recovery and job satisfaction.

Beware of Age Discrimination 

With the current climate of workforce reduction, terminations are leading to an increase in legal challenges and ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) charges.   Furthermore, some states are no longer discounting workers' compensation benefits due to age as it is perceived to be contrary to state anti-discrimination cases, according to the American Bar Association.

Some employers maintain that older workers create higher overhead costs as a result of higher wage and benefit compensation along with additional expenses related to training in new technologies.  These perceptions may become obstacles to hiring and retaining older workers.  Additionally, employers may feel that older workers are less productive or less willing to change or learn new skills.  When this perception results in discriminatory employment practices, an employer risks costly lawsuits and regulatory penalties. 

The best practice for every business is to objectively evaluate company policies and decisions in terms of its potential impact on older workers and whether there are reasonable alternatives to current practices that eliminate or reduce any adverse impact.

Best Practices to Reduce Risk and Maximize Performance 

Depending on your workplace and unique risk factors, you may need to address one or all of the following areas: 

Recruitment and Employee Engagement

  • Evaluate recruiting and employee selection procedures to verify that aging workers are fairly given opportunities to apply and interview for positions. 
  • Offer new challenges or opportunities for older workers to further contribute to the organization. 
  • Offer flexible work schedules and allow for reasonable accommodations if job demands exceed a worker's capabilities or if workers have personal issues or caregiver duties that interfere with their work schedule. 
  • Support wellness programs that contribute to reducing chronic illness, such as smoking cessation and weight management programs.
  • Assure that older segments of your workforce are engaged and given opportunities to offer creative suggestions related to their work.
  • Involve the aging worker in the controls and management of your work processes.  The more they feel part of the "process," the more pride they take in their work product and overall work psyche.

Adapt Training Programs 

  • Identify older workers who wish to expand skills, learn new skills or refresh previous training provided earlier in their employment or career.
  • Ensure that learning and development programs do not favor younger workers over older workers.
  • Assure that training environments are suitable for experienced workers, meaningful to their level of skills and not too rudimentary.
  • Make the training programs a portion of an employee's overall performance evaluation in order to increase participation and attention to detail.

Formalize your Absence Management Program

  • Develop written absence management policies including:
    • Prompt reporting of absences and lost time.
    • Mechanisms to maintain contact/connection between employee and workplace.
    • A process for providing job accommodations and job/duty modifications to prevent or reduce the length of an absence.
    • A process for monitoring the transition from modified duty to full duty status.
    • A return-to-work program, often including a flexible workplace arrangement.
  • Educate all employees regarding the policies regularly so there is consistent understanding of injury management and medical leave policies. 
  • Provide opportunities to allow for transitional duty that does not violate treating physician restrictions. 

Reduce Exposure through Ergonomics

  • Identify repetitive tasks involving high force and awkward body postures that lead to musculoskeletal (soft tissue) disorders (MSDs).  Consider engineering controls to redesign workstations to reduce exposure.  Change work methods to include stretch and flex programs or job rotation and enlargement.
  • Develop an injury response process that immediately evaluates employee complaints or reports of pain that are suspected to be connected to work-related MSD's. 
  • Provide modifications to the work environment to account for sensory changes related to aging, such as reduced hearing, sight and reaction times.

Communication is essential to consistent performance and positive employee response.   Creating a positive and healthy work environment that supports all age groups will lead to fewer injuries, lower overall costs and higher employer engagement.