We see older workers (classified as those over 55 years of age) forgoing retirement for a variety of reasons, including economic instability. Combine that behavior with this group’s inherently large size and it’s no surprise they represent the nation’s fastest growing segment of the working population. So, how is this impacting the health system, particularly workers’ compensation claims? We can look at some of the data produced from the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding their workplace injuries for clues.
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from April 29, 2011, describes the data and detail around 2009 workplace injuries among these older workers. We find that from 2003 to 2009 there was an absolute 5% increase in work-related injuries resulting in lost time among older workers, increasing from 12% of injuries to 17% of injuries among workers. While the rates for many injuries are lower in the older workers, the median length of time that these workers are absent from work increases with age, which suggests that these older workers take longer to recover from non-fatal injuries than their younger counterparts.
Some other data points are worth mentioning. We see that older workers have the highest fatal injury rates with 31% of all occupational fatalities. However, the rates of many other types of injuries are lower in the older workers, despite their higher rates of falls from the same level, fractures and hip injuries. In addition, back pain constitutes a large percentage of the acute traumatic injuries. Like the increasing problem of chronic pain, these cases have the potential to become long-term problems for injured workers, employers and carriers alike.
Clearly, critical strategies around safety to prevent falls and other injuries are required. We also need clear occupational medicine pathways for these workers to be treated by clinicians familiar with and capable of managing these injuries. Furthermore, these physicians should be vigilant against the development of chronic pain problems. Collectively we have an opportunity to recognize the trend and take steps toward mutual benefits for the injured workers, employers and carriers.