Understand Aging Workers to Better Manage Claims
Contrary to popular belief, injury risk for older workers declines for only half the working population. Recent research shows the risk of occupational injuries increases with age for women.
“There is a weird phenomenon that women over the age of 50 are all of a sudden at higher risk than men for injury at work,” said Jeffrey Austin White, director of innovation for Accident Fund Holdings. In fact, a report from the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation also found that injury risk among women through the age of 64 stays constant or increases gradually with age.
It is that type of finding that portends the many issues related to the aging workforce. Recent research indicates it would be a mistake for workers’ comp practitioners to look at it in a vacuum.
“There’s this perception that once baby boomers retire, the issues with an aging workforce will be over,” White said. “My message is ‘no, it’s just beginning.’ Yes, there will be a flattening of the age distribution profile, but the real issues are multifaceted.”
“In 2013, we had more claims for women than men. It was the first time in the history of the company that the number of female claims surpassed that of the male population in our book of business.” — Jeffrey Austin White, director of innovation, Accident Fund Holdings
White, who is charged with pouring over research and making sense of it for the workers’ comp system, said there is a confluence of factors related to aging workers. Stakeholders, he said, need to be aware of them and take action to ensure their workers — and their bottom lines — are safe and healthy.
New Trends in Aging Workers
Despite concerns about baby boomers retiring and leaving a void of institutional knowledge, there is growing evidence of a different trend. Where the labor force grew by more than 1.1 percent during the 1990s, it is projected to grow by just 0.4 percent in the current decade and even less in the next 10 years.
“Slower labor force growth will encourage employers to adopt approaches to facilitate greater labor force participation among women, the elderly, and people with disabilities,” correctly predicted a 2004 RAND study on future work trends and implications. “In a tight labor market, employers can try to recruit groups with relatively low labor force participation. Changes in incentives associated with pension plans and reforms to Social Security may motivate older workers to retire later.”
In addition to declining financial resources and recruitment efforts aimed at older workers, there is increasing appeal. It is becoming easier for older people to work.
“As technology advances and communication platforms get more sophisticated, the amount of physical activity required in the workplace will diminish, allowing employers to get more creative with their hiring practices and work schedules,” White said. “This essentially opens the door for the disabled or elderly to participate longer in the workforce, perhaps working from remote locations (like from home) or under non-standard work relationships. Economics and market pressures will encourage this practice.”
Advances in automation technology and informatics are minimizing the risk to workers by reducing the need for physical labor. Finally, improved health and increased life expectancies are making it easier for people to work into older ages.
“There are a lot of dynamics going on there,” White said. “The feasibility of an older working population presents a multitude of issues in workers’ compensation claims management.”
All older workers are not the same. However, there are some commonalities that create challenges for workers’ comp payers and managers.
“As we get older there is a higher risk for acquired disease such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension, you name it. We are more susceptible to comorbidities or complicating medical factors as we age,” White said. “The lines are often blurred around the accountability for payment of comorbid conditions surrounding a workplace injury. The added cost are staggering, and there is a lot of preparation needed to mitigate the risk of an aging workforce.”
Another generalization about older workers relates to the types of injuries they sustain, as well as their recoveries.
“Above [age] 50 we see a lot more slips and falls, and a lot more strains,” White said. “We are seeing different types of injuries within this population, and it takes longer for them to heal and get back to work than the younger generation.”
Added to age-related concerns of injured workers are factors such as gender and ethnicity, which may increase the risk of injury and/or present additional challenges in their recoveries. Recent findings about women are significant when considering that women now participate in the workforce equally to men.
“In 2013, we had more claims for women than men,” White said. “It was the first time in the history of the company that the number of female claims surpassed that of the male population in our book of business.”
While the increasing number of workers’ comp claims among women is likely due to more women in the workforce, it also has to do with the higher risk propensity of women as they age. The CHSWC study also found that even among younger women the risk of injury was 20 percent to 50 percent higher than for men working in the same job.
White also points to obesity as a factor related to aging that creates pockets of risk-prone populations.