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NIOSH Total Worker Health webinar focuses on aging workforce

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Photo: Kuzma/iStockphoto

Atlanta – Productive aging is about minimizing losses and maximizing growth. That was the message from James Grosch, NIOSH Center for Productive Aging and Work co-director and research psychologist, during a Sept. 27 webinar, “Productive Aging and Work: Theory, Health Data & Practical Solutions” – part of the NIOSH Total Worker Health webinar series.

Joining Grosch were Xiuwen Sue Dong, Data Center director for the Center for Construction Research and Training (also known as CPWR), and Steven Hecker, emeritus faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health and the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research.

Drawing on recent data about older members of the workforce, the presenters emphasized creating supportive workplaces and policies for aging workers.

CPWR analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and found 22.6 percent of U.S. workers were 55 and older in 2015. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, that number stood at 19 percent in 2010, and is expected to climb to 24.8 percent by 2024. BLS also is projecting that the percentage of workers who are 65 and older will rise to 8.2 in 2024 – nearly double the 4.3 percent recorded in 2010.

“These workers bring valuable experience and knowledge that benefits not only employers but also younger workers who may learn and benefit from their mentorship,” NIOSH Director John Howard said in a video message. “We expect that older workers will continue to play an important role in the workplace of the future. This is why we must look at how the concept of productive aging at work plays an important role and creating conditions that allow workers to function optimally and thrive from their first day on the job until the last day for their retirement.”

Workers are protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 upon turning 40, but do not become eligible for Medicare benefits until they turn 65. Grosch said aging could be viewed through two distinct prisms – as a process of decline and loss or one of development and growth.

In both cases, Grosch said it is important to be mindful of individual differences. Aging may not affect someone’s work, and the amount of growth may depend on the professional environment.

Dong cited a CPWR Data Center study on the effects of aging in the construction industry against all other industries. Among the findings:

  • The average planned retirement age for construction workers increased to 65.4 years in 2012 from 60.9 years in 1994.
  • Construction workers 55 and older suffered fatal injuries at a rate of 14.7 per 100,000 full-time workers, nearly double the rate of workers younger than 35. For other industries, the fatal injury rate was 5.7 per 100,000 full-time workers for those 55 and older and 2.4 per 100,000 full-time workers for workers younger than 35.
  • The risks of all causes of fatal injuries increased with age. According to 2014 Census of Fatal Occupational Industries data, workers 65 and older (27.3 percent) and 55 to 64 (20.7 percent) represented nearly half of those who suffered fatal falls. Workers between the ages of 20 and 24 represented 8.2 percent of those who suffered fatal falls.
  • Older workers are more likely to experience trunk, back, shoulder and knee pain due to illness or injury and require longer recovery periods.

Hecker recommended that employers conduct self-assessments to determine their readiness to accommodate the projected increase in older workers, noting that most organizations likely will be affected. He also discussed a pilot project on accommodations for the aging workforce. The project involved potential intervention targets – including tasks involving lifting, vision and hearing – identified from the worker, work environment, organization and society levels.

Project participants were given a workbook featuring an existing workplace assessment created by AARP. Hecker and his research partners ultimately found that participants became frustrated after searching for answers and resolutions neither the assessment nor Hecker and his team could provide. In addition, many workers feared that simply discussing the issue of accommodations “would prompt managers to find ways of getting rid of [older workers] rather than approaching the organizational climate for aging.”

Hecker said the pilot group learned that future projects must extend beyond an educational curriculum, as most organizations are not yet prepared to commit to a systematic approach. A chief dilemma: Selecting concerns large enough to make a significant impact, but manageable enough to be accomplished.

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