Older people dying on job at higher rate
35% of fatal workplace accidents involved a worker over 55 years old
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, such as 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, was one of them. Mr. White 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 in an interview. “Accidents happen. He just made the wrong move.”
The AP analysis showed that the 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.
She said she’s not sure that older workers need much more protection than younger workers, but agreed there is a need for all workers to have more protection. “We are not paying enough attention to occupational safety in this country,” she said.
The AP analysis is based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and from 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 or stroke.
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.
“We expect that there will be more older workers increasing each year and they will represent a greater share [of the fatalities] over the last couple of decades,” said Mr. Scott, the Denver epidemiologist. “This issue of elevated risk is something we should be paying close attention to.”
An Associated Press-NORC 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.
The National Center for Productive Aging and Work is pushing for changes in the workplace to make it safer for older workers. The year-old center is part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“We advocate to make workplaces as agefriendly as possible,” co-director James Grosch said, for example, increased lighting helps older workers whose eyesight has weakened with age.
We expect that there will be more older workers increasing each year and they will represent a greater share [of the fatalities] over the last couple of decades. This issue of elevated risk is something we should be paying close attention to.” — Ken Scott, Epidemiologist with Denver Public Health Department
Firefighters transport an injured worker to the ambulance. An explosion at the Bryan Texas Utilities Power Plant left Earle Robinson, 60, dead and two others injured. 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 analysis.