Here’s Why Older Workers Are Actually Safer, Most of the Time

Older workers tend to have fewer injuries, but they often take longer to recover.
By: | September 13, 2019

If you’re looking around the office and thinking that everyone’s hair is looking a little grayer, you’re not imagining it.

Since 1985, the number of retirement-age Americans in the workforce has doubled, and nearly 20% of Americans aged 65 or older are either working or actively looking for employment, according to a United Incomes report that examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CDC and the U.S. census.

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While working past retirement age can have health benefits, including increased mental dexterity and living longer, older workers are also more likely to face soft tissue injuries, which make up a large portion of workers’ comp claims, and they have different needs than their younger peers when injured.

“Aging workers have different needs when they’re injured. Their claims tend to act differently. Their recovery periods tend to be more prolonged,” said Matt Zender, senior vice president of workers’ compensation strategy, AmTrust Financial.

“There’s special care that needs to be applied to make sure that they’re getting the appropriate medical attention.”

What’s Keeping Older Workers on the Job?

A combination of the need to save money, a desire for continued mental health and new benefits that make dismissing retirement easier have all contributed to people remaining in the workforce.

According to Forbes, a lack of savings keeps many boomers in the workforce past retirement age. They report that the average boomer has only $100,000 in savings when they retire. This is about $900,000 less than experts recommend.

Matt Zender, senior vice president, WC product manager, AmTrust Financial Services

“This is a function of a balance between opportunity and need,” Zender said.

“Having the need is, unfortunately, evidenced by a group of these older workers who are doing so because, perhaps for whatever reason, they weren’t able to save as much as they might have needed to be able to retire absent doing something supplementary to work.”

The “opportunity” to continue working, as Zender put it, is seen in a group of older workers who stay on the job because of the additional health benefits it provides.

Working even one year past retirement age has been shown to extend a person’s lifespan, according to Harvard Health Publishing reports, and Forbes notes that working longer can help people avoid conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“Those who are continuing to work and continuing to keep an active mind are seeing lower instances of degenerative diseases, whether it’s mental or physical,” Zender said.

Another reason older adults remain in the work force is that new benefits, such as remote work opportunities and phased retirement programs, make it easier to remain employed while still enjoying some of the benefits of retirement, like increased ability to travel.

Fewer Injuries, Longer Recovery

The good news for workers’ compensation programs is that people working into retirement age can actually make companies safer.

NCCI data shows that older workers have some of the lowest incidents of injury, likely due to their experiences with working safely.

“If you set two people down, one of whom has been in the industry for 40 years or 50 years and one of whom has been in the industry for four or five years, I think it’s pretty reasonable to expect which one would have a better understanding as to how to work safely,” Zender said.

“It would be the one who’s probably sat in 400 safety meetings in his career, or her career. Someone who has seen the downside of not working safely, maybe even via themselves or maybe it was watching a co-worker cutting a corner and paying the price for that.”

When older workers are injured, however, they’re more likely to have comorbidities and they often take longer to recover.

“With an older worker, the body just doesn’t have the ability to bounce back the same way that it would have,” Zender said.

“There’s lots of other comorbidities that can be involved. You may have a lifetime of a certain habit, maybe smoking or other things that are going to complicate the recovery. There’s certain medications that a doctor may or may not be able to use because they’re using other medications…over the course of maybe 60 or 70 years, they’ve accumulated other issues that complicate [claims].”

Don’t Push the Limits

Zender said that understanding peoples’ limits is one of the most important things employers can do to keep injured workers safe.

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“Older workers might exaggerate what they still feel like they can do,” Zender said.

“I think being sensitive to the abilities of those older workers, and knowing what their restrictions really are, and not allowing perhaps someone to exaggerate due to maybe some pride is important.”

He also noted that employers should make sure injured workers know that they’re still valuable, even if they now face physical limitations that they didn’t have in their younger years.

“Just the amount of information that they’ve accumulated over the years should be taken advantage of in a meaningful way and a positive way for both the employer and the employee,” he said. &

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]