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The expanding economy and focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure have fueled demand for skilled labor in the construction sector, leaving many contractors facing a shortage of workers. In the meantime, the workforce is aging, creating new challenges for contractors, which may have to revamp jobsite safety initiatives to address the needs of older workers. 

Notably, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that during the past decade, workers age 45 and over have increased 49 percent and now comprise 44 percent of the workforce. Those over age 55 account for 21 percent of the workforce. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 37 percent of working age respondents indicated they expect to work beyond age 65. 

Given the projected “aging” of America’s workforce, how well are construction contractors preparing to address potential increase workers’ compensation claims? That’s an important question, especially considering current injury trends, which point to issues for the construction sector with respect to older workers. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 the construction sector had more than 13,000 nonfatal injuries involving workers age 55 and over that resulted in lost time. Across all industries, 37 percent of injuries to workers aged 55 – 64 involved 31 or more days away from work. Meanwhile, 39 percent of injured workers aged 65 and over missed that amount of time. The lost time rates were dramatically higher for these two age groups than for any others. 

Injury severity remains significant in the construction sector. Of the nearly 80,000 nonfatal injuries and illnesses involving workers in construction during 2017, some 26,000 resulted in 31 or more lost days from work. And the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reported that 15 percent of fatalities in all industries involved workers age 65 and over. 

Despite these grim statistics, safety professionals in all industries generally have been slow to align their approaches, policies, procedures and programs to address aging workers. And in higher risk industries, such as construction, this needs to be a priority. 

There are five areas where contractors can sharpen their efforts to address the special needs of older workers and enhance workplace safety. 

1. Safety program design

For aging workers, providing video instruction or giving lectures on workplace safety generally haven’t been effective at reducing losses. Instead, contractors need to design and implement classroom training, hands-on orientation and target the high-risk exposures for aging workers (e.g. fall prevention, musculoskeletal, ergonomics, etc.). It’s important to recognize that a key challenge in many training programs for aging workers is that they often are not focused on fundamental physical, cognitive or psycho-social issues facing aging workers nor are the aligned with the core causes of absenteeism. For instance, key co-morbidities among older workers with job-related injuries are diabetes and obesity. Thus, safety initiatives tailored to these workers should include discussions of diabetes and obesity as risk factors for safety, and take into account reduced muscle strength, changes in gait and vision reduction, all of which need to be built into programs and safety assessment tools with some modifications specifically to address job-related issues facing aging workers. 

2. Ergonomics

Contractors should check that these programs assess fatigue and work rest cycles as the pace of work and the ability to keep up may be an issue. Be sure to evaluate signage, lighting and work instructions for aging workers as their ability to see and read printed instructions may be impeded. Age-specific evaluations should be used to fit the job to the employee and not the reverse. In some instances, time and motion studies may be used for specific repetitive tasks to help reduce motion and, in turn, fatigue. Repetition rates, strength capabilities, compression forces, etc., should be assessed and benchmarked specifically for aging workers with epidemiological and biomechanical modifiers. In addition, leading indicators may be used to track early symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders in these workers.

3. Benefits programs

Contractors have an opportunity to align employee benefits with age-specific data trends and make appropriate adjustments to reduce related loss drivers. Notably, they might review their workers’ compensation, short-term and longer-term disability, FMLA and casual absence trends, all of which may be useful in determining directions needed for specific safety measures and ergonomic programs to reduce claims. Even some simple changes in work schedules, days off and job rotations may help keep older employees engaged and healthy.

4. Wellness

As with other benefits, these programs should be fully aligned with workers’ compensation injury trends to improve worker fitness to meet physical demands of the job. Stretch and flex, health coaching, diabetic testing and coaching, and annual physicals can easily be part of the company benefits program. According to the CDC, nearly one-third of the U.S. population is diabetic or pre-diabetic and obesity is even more pervasive. Injured employees with diabetes and obesity often have longer recovery times; in some cases, these conditions may trigger complications that worsen injuries.

5. Human resources

A contractor’s Human Resources department can play a vital role in assessing workforce profile, age stratification and age-related workforce composition trending, as well as in evaluating job-specific physical demands and age-appropriateness. In the construction sector, thorough and complete job descriptions are a must have and should be followed to hire the most qualified candidates for each position and to retain the best workers in any age group.

As individuals age, they typically lose muscle strength, have lower dexterity, reduced fitness levels and aerobic capacity, poorer visual and auditory acuity, sand lower cognitive speed and function, among other changes. In addition, older workers are at increased risk of disease and other ailments, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, among others. 

For contractors, any initiatives to understand, assess and manage the impact of an aging workforce on costs and productivity need to start with engaging leadership and obtaining their support. Such efforts also call for close collaboration among those within the organization and any external providers responsible for risk management, human resources, workers’ compensation, employee benefits and wellness. 

By working collaboratively to review their age-specific data and wellness program statistics, contractors can develop effective strategies to align safety, ergonomics, wellness and benefits programs with the needs of aging workers. The outcome of such efforts may be reduced accidents, lower rates of absenteeism, improved worker retention and productivity, lower costs and better overall performance. 


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