Expert: Avoid Comp Claims With Workplace That Fits Older Staff

NU Online News Service, April 8, 4:17 p.m. EDT

For the growing number of aging workers, employers should modify the workplace, engage the workforce, institute wellness programs, and tailor jobs for older workers to avoid costly workers' compensation claims, a medical expert said.

Glenn Pransky, director of the Center for Disability Research, Liberty Mutual Research Institute, advised that employers should assess their workforce and pay particular attention to older employees forced by economics to keep working.

In a talk at a Liberty Mutual Webinar titled, "When I'm 64: Issues in Medical Management of the Aging Workforce," he explained that "older workers" are typically defined as 55 and older, although aging effects can be seen in manual laborers as early as age 40.

Mr. Pransky said the number of people over 55 is growing. More than 35 percent of all persons over 55 are currently working, he said, and over the next seven years that number will increase by another third.

Reasons for the increase include baby boomers aging, increases in retirement age, improved medical technology and decreased retirement savings.

The aging process effects people differently, Mr. Pransky noted. Changes that are likely for most people include visual accommodation, loss of hearing, increase in blood pressure, and a decrease in peak strength and aerobic capacity.

Effects that can vary depending on the person include the ability to reason, think and remember; obesity; and chronic illness, Mr. Pransky said.

He said Bureau of Labor statistics show the injury rate per year for workers over 55 is half that of younger workers, as older workers tend to be safer, more experienced and better at avoiding risk.

But accidents such as falls are more common for older workers. Additionally, if these workers have a fall, they are twice as likely to have a fracture, Mr. Pransky said. Fatality risk from an accident also increases with age, he said.

Mr. Pransky suggested assessing workers as a strategy for getting a handle on workers' situations before an injury occurs.

All older workers are not the same, he noted, pointing to a study in New Hampshire conducted by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute, which sampled all workers over 55 that had workers' comp claims.

Mr. Pransky said older workers generally fall into three categories: healthy survivors who are still successfully working in their first career; post-retirement workers who changed careers; and trapped workers who want to retire but are financially unable to.

Post retirement workers, Mr. Pransky said, risk facing a mismatch between their job and their capabilities, because they are typically moving to a different industry with different demands.

Trapped workers tend to have a lower level of education and income, and more chronic health problems that could complicate workers' compensation claims.

Employers should particularly identify workers in this last group, Mr. Pransky said, as marginal job performance and difficulties on the job typically precede a workplace injury for them.

Mr. Pransky said employers should develop a wellness program for older workers that includes diet and exercise.

Additionally, he said training should be modified for these workers, as some older workers may need more repetition than younger workers when learning tasks and responsibilities.

Employers should also tailor jobs to aging workers by decreasing the manual handling of heavy loads and ensuring a comfortable working posture.

Post injury, Mr. Pransky said employers should capture the value of the attachment older workers have to their jobs, which tends to be greater than young workers. Employers should communicate early and often with an injured older worker, and also try to find alternate duties for him/her.

Craig Ross, regional medical director for Liberty Mutual Group, said an empathetic call from a supervisor could be invaluable to an older worker.

Rehabilitation and re-training efforts should take into account the special needs of older workers, too, Mr. Pransky said.

As pre-existing injuries can complicate a workers' compensation claim, Mr. Ross also said a thorough investigation of a workplace accident should be conducted so the employer can determine what happened.

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