Older peo­ple work­ing them­selves to death, lit­er­ally, at a higher rate

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Maria Ines Za­mu­dio and Michelle Minkoff

Older peo­ple are dy­ing on the job at a higher rate than work­ers over­all, even as the rate of work­place fa­tal­i­ties de­creases, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of fed­eral sta­tis­tics.

It’s a trend that’s par­tic­u­larly alarm­ing as baby boomers re­ject the tra­di­tional re­tire­ment age of 65 and keep work­ing. The U.S. gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that by 2024, older work­ers will ac­count for 25 per­cent of the la­bor mar­ket.

Get­ting old — and the phys­i­cal changes as­so­ci­ated with it — “could po­ten­tially make a work­place in­jury into a much more se­ri­ous in­jury or a po­ten­tially fa­tal in­jury,” said Ken Scott, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist with the Den­ver Pub­lic Health De­part­ment.

Geron­tol­o­gists say those changes in­clude grad­u­ally wors­en­ing vi­sion and hear­ing im­pair­ment, re­duced re­sponse time, bal­ance is­sues and chronic med­i­cal or mus­cle or bone prob­lems like arthri­tis.

In 2015, about 35 per­cent of the fa­tal work­place ac­ci­dents in­volved a worker 55 and older — or 1,681 of the 4,836 fa­tal­i­ties re­ported na­tion­ally.

Wil­liam White, 56, fell 25 feet while work­ing at Testa Pro­duce Inc. on Chicago’s South Side. He later died of his in­juries.

“I thought it wouldn’t hap­pen to him,” his son, Wil­liam White Jr., said. “Ac­ci­dents hap­pen. He just made the wrong move.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis showed that over­all work­place fa­tal­ity rate for all work­ers — and for those 55 and older — de­creased by 22 per­cent be­tween 2006 and 2015. But the rate of fa­tal ac­ci­dents among older work­ers dur­ing that time pe­riod was 50 per­cent to 65 per­cent higher than for all work­ers, depend­ing on the year.

The num­ber of deaths among all work­ers dropped from 5,480

in 2005 to 4,836 in 2015. By con­trast, on-the-job fa­tal­i­ties among older work­ers in­creased slightly, from 1,562 to 1,681, the anal­y­sis shows.

Dur­ing that time pe­riod, the num­ber of older peo­ple in the work­place in­creased by 37 per­cent. That com­pares with a 6 per­cent rise in the pop­u­la­tion of work­ers over­all.

Ruth Finkel­stein, co-di­rec­tor of Columbia Univer­sity’s Ag­ing Cen­ter, cau­tions against stereo­typ­ing. She said older peo­ple have a range of phys­i­cal and men­tal abil­i­ties and that it’s dan­ger­ous to lump all peo­ple in an age group to­gether be­cause it could lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“I’m just not pos­i­tive that 55- to 70-year-olds need so much more pro­tec­tion than work­ers 52-20, but are all those peo­ple need­ing pro­tec­tion now? Yes, ab­so­lutely. We are not pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to oc­cu­pa­tional safety in this coun­try.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis is based on data from the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics’ Cen­sus for Fa­tal Oc­cu­pa­tional In­juries and one-year es­ti­mates from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey, which looks at the work­ing pop­u­la­tion. It ex­cludes cases where the cause of death was from a “nat­u­ral cause,” in­clud­ing a heart at­tack and stroke, among oth­ers.

AP also ex­am­ined the num­ber and types of ac­ci­dents in which older work­ers died be­tween 2011, when the bureau changed the way it cat­e­go­rized ac­ci­dents, to 2015:

• Fall-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties rose 20 per­cent.

• Con­tact with ob­jects and equip­ment in­creased 17 per­cent.

• Trans­porta­tion ac­ci­dents in­creased 15 per­cent.

• Fires and ex­plo­sions de­creased by 8 per­cent.

Wil­liam White Jr.’s voice cracked with emo­tion as he talked about the Sept. 24 ac­ci­dent that killed his fa­ther. “He went up to get an item for the de­liv­ery driver and the next thing you know he made a wrong move and fell,” the Chicago res­i­dent said.

Testa Inc. was fined $12,600 by U.S. Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion for fail­ing to pro­vide safety train­ing. The com­pany de­clined com­ment.

In most states, the fa­tal ac­ci­dent rates for older work­ers were con­sis­tently higher than com­pa­ra­ble rates for all work­ers.

Ne­vada, New Jersey and Wash­ing­ton had the great­est per­cent in­crease in fa­tal ac­ci­dent rates for older work­ers be­tween 2006 and 2015.

The three states with the big­gest per­cent de­crease were Hawaii, Ore­gon and Ver­mont.

Eight states saw their over­all work­place fa­tal­ity rate drop, even as the rate for older work­ers in­creased: Mas­sachusetts, Michi­gan, Mon­tana, Ne­vada, New York, Texas, Utah and Wash­ing­ton.

In two states – North Dakota and Wis­con­sin – the trend was re­versed; older worker ac­ci­dent rates got smaller while the ac­ci­dent rate over­all in­creased.

An As­so­ci­ated PRESSNORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search poll found in 2013 that 44 per­cent of older Amer­i­cans said their job re­quired phys­i­cal ef­fort most or al­most all of the time, and 36 per­cent said it was more dif­fi­cult to com­plete the phys­i­cal re­quire­ments of their jobs than it was when they were younger.

Trans­porta­tion ac­ci­dents ac­count for a large por­tion of fa­tal work­place in­ci­dents among older work­ers and work­ers in gen­eral.

The As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis also showed that older work­ers were in­volved in about 1 in 4 fa­tal work­place ac­ci­dents re­lated to fires and ex­plo­sions from 2011 to 2015.

In one in­ci­dent, Earle Robin­son, 60, died of in­juries suf­fered in an ex­plo­sion and fire at Bryan Texas Util­i­ties Power Plant, about 100 miles north of Hous­ton.

“He’s in bad shape. He’s got a lot of fa­cial burns,” ac­cord­ing to a tran­script of the 911 calls.

The com­pany de­clined to com­ment for this story.

Bryan Fire De­part­ment

Fire­fight­ers in Bryan Texas, stand out­side the city’s power plant af­ter an ex­plo­sion and fire on April 29, 2014. Earle Robin­son, 60, and other em­ploy­ees were do­ing main­te­nance work at Bryan Texas Util­i­ties Power Plant, which is lo­cated about 100 miles north of Hous­ton, when there was a loud ex­plo­sion. Work­ers called 911 and pleaded for help. Robin­son died from the in­juries he suf­fered.

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