The older worker is in an age trap. They can try to stay employed in their existing job. That might pay relatively well and come with good benefits. But the biological clock is ticking on these highly valuable, experienced workers.
Workers 55 and older comprised 11.8 percent of the American workforce in 2000. In 2010, this figure rose to 16.7 percent, and in 2020 it is projected to be 22.7 percent. In 2009, 17 percent of injuries involving at least one lost day of work were sustained by workers 55 years or older. And, as the National Council on Compensation Insurance reports, older workers have different injuries than those of their younger cohorts. Many more rotator cuff tears, for instance.
These older workers with compensable injuries are a fraction of older workers whose productivity and work is at risk due to physical demands of the job.
Out of 18.8 million workers age 58 and older, about one third held physically demanding jobs in 2009. Close to half of those workers held jobs that either required general physical effort, or could be considered jobs with difficult working conditions.
The median income of 55 to 64 year-old workers has dropped by close to 10 percent since mid-2009, and among those who lose their jobs, older workers have lower re-employment rates than do younger workers.
Susan Isernhagen, an expert in functional capacity testing, said that aging affects the power muscles such as those found in the legs, the grip and the pinch. Balance diminishes as well.
The decline in these functional capacities can be accelerated by what she calls microtears, the innumerable hits and the unrecorded damage to the body brought by physical demands. A new study by Dutch researchers found that material handling, hand and finger strength, and hand coordination decline the most in workers who are more than 45 years old. So it is not surprising that most older roofers who voluntarily left their trade did so because of health reasons.
Douglas Martin, a physician and disability expert who advises meatpackers and other employers in Iowa, sums these declines into the term "intolerance." "What happens with the cumulative disorder claims?" he said. "As a doctor, what are you really treating? A medical problem, or an intolerance to the job task?"
Motivated older workers can extend their employment through employer support. Job redesigns, sometimes involving co-workers, keep millions of workers productive. But what's not happening on any great scale is entire job changes within the same employer, except perhaps after a work injury. Injured workers lose about half pre-injury their strength, and much of that may not return.
The best solution to prolonging the work life of older workers, and containing disability costs, is more support by employers to their older workers before an injury, and before aging and work wear down the worker.
This is not without cost. It's a kind of loss prevention expertise that insurers need to master and promote among employers. It's a private sector initiative, and the preservation of productive, meaningful work by older workers is a goal that should unite conservatives and liberals.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is an expert on the workers' compensation industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 1, 2012
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