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Senior Moments: Are Older Workers at Greater Risk of Injury?

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Photo by Johanna Knapschaefer for ENR
Laborer/carpenter Alex Ruiz de La Peña, 60, plans to keep working. He is employed by North Branch Construction at a dormitory project in Manchester, N.H.
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Darrell Wing, 62, has an easy laugh for someone who doesn't have such an easy job. During a recent break from his duties as a master carpenter on a college-dorm project in New Hampshire for contractor North Branch Construction Inc.,Wing chuckled as he discussed his intention to remain active in construction.

He has suffered hearing loss from jobsite noises over the years and admits it takes a little longer to get in and out of kneeling positions for work. "Getting down ain't bad, but getting up is a little harder," he joked. But he soldiers on with many others like him on jobsites.

An aging workforce is the construction industry's demographic phenomenon, with many workers now approaching or over age 60 and pressing on through aches and pains that would have sidelined their elders a decade ago.

As their physical abilities erode, many older workers are staying on, perhaps to rebuild their own recession-depleted retirement savings and keep employer-provided health insurance or to leverage a bounty of skills and experience in many construction sectors that are facing a shortage of workers. Fit and financially secure, still others just don't want to be idle. As of 2010, the average construction worker was 41.5 years old, at least five years older than he or she was in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey. A significant number of much older workers are still on the job.

For this story, ENR reviewed recent research on older construction workers, giving special attention to safety and health. The studies include federal census and safety data, union-funded and insurance-industry projects, and university scholarship. Through interviews with experienced union and non-union workers, a nuanced and complex picture of older construction workers emerged. Although seen as productive and valued employees with deep skills, older workers are more likely to die in an accident; however, they are less likely to be injured than a younger worker, according to research data.

Last year, for example, 19 construction workers above the age of 65 died in accidents on jobsites in the U.S. Among them was Howard Dean Harless, a 70-year-old millwright from Greenville, Tenn., who fell 30 feet through a roof panel that his co-workers had unbolted moments before.

As employers recognize the growth of older workers on the job in an industry that, overall, lost many workers to the recession, some firms are looking for methods to help senior craft workers ease back into service after an injury. Other companies are looking at better ways to help younger workers avoid injuries, which can make a young man old very fast.

After all, apprentices and new hires are often subjected to the most strenuous work, according to Ann Marie Dale, an assistant professor for occupational therapy at Washington University, St. Louis. "The [newer] apprentices do the most physically demanding work because they're the low man on the totem pole," she notes.

Advancing up the ladder to journeyman or journeywoman, foreman or super is a means of escaping the most taxing labor. "As they work their way up the hierarchy," says Dale, "they can get into some of the easier tasks and have less of the physical demands, so they can actually lighten their load just by seniority."

Potential Liability?

At first glance, older workers who can't escape the physical hazards seem like a potential insurance liability. Research by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, an industry body that helps set workers' compensation insurance rates, indicates that, for most industries, workers' compensation costs don't rise significantly past the age of 35.

Construction is different. Driven mostly by expenses for disability treatment and missed work, the mean total cost of an injury claim for a 65-year-old are triple those of a 24-year-old's, according to Natalie Schwatka, a doctoral student and public health researcher at Colorado State University who analyzed 107,000 construction-industry workers' compensation claims. Most of that increase comes from indemnity costs, disability and out-of-work payments.

Schwatka also did research on how aging affects injury severity in the construction industry. The studies she and her team reviewed indicate that older workers were more likely to be hospitalized for tripping or slipping and hitting a surface when they are working (as opposed to falling off a ladder). She thinks older workers are less likely to work on roofs and scaffolds, only to sustain simpler injuries when they trip or slip.

Older workers apparently need more time to recover, too, other studies show. According to the federal 2008 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, median days away from work due to work-related injuries nearly doubles, to 29 from 15, in the construction industry after a worker turns 65.

Schwatka's team also found that older workers are more likely to die in a work-related accident. According to data collected between 2008 and 2010 by the CPWR/Center for Construction Research and Training, the ratio of fatal injuries to non-fatal injuries rises gradually from the ages of 35 to 65, which amounts to an increase of 10 incidents per 100,000 full-time employees (FTEs) over those 30 years. After age 65, the ratio spikes to about 25 per 100,000 FTEs from fewer than 15 incidents per 100,000 FTEs.

The drawbacks represented by these statistics don't tell the entire story.

Veteran craft workers enjoy one important statistical advantage over their younger counterparts: They are much less likely to be injured at all. Most studies that have measured the rate of injury in a population of construction workers have found that older workers have a lower rate of injury or make up a lower proportion of workers' compensation claims than workers in younger age brackets.

Research has not yet discovered a particular reason for the trend, but the data suggests older workers decline to report some injuries. According to this theory, these workers wish to avoid any stigma associated with an injury caused by carelessness or fear retaliation. Another idea is that they don't expect to collect much from workers' compensation insurance by reporting the injury. Laura Welch, medical director at CPWR, believes older workers may have higher unionization rates, which would allow them to choose to work for a safer company.

Older workers also draw on a deep reservoir of experience to avoid accidents. "They try to make every move count, so they plan ahead and assess situations, which helps with spotting hazards," says Scott Acton, co-owner and president of Forté Specialty Contractors, a Las Vegas-based general contractor that tackles complex jobs.

Whether a contractor keeps an older worker and shoulders the potential cost of an injury or hires a new worker and foots the bill for retraining and lost productivity, says Dale, employers are bound to pay a price. "In some way, that contractor is still paying for these problems whether it's in the medical cost because they bear the treatment or it's in lost productivity or poor quality work because the worker's hurting and stays on the job, or because they switch to get a new guy and just do the revolving door routine."

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