Safety and Health Outcomes Associated with Aging and Work

woman operating heavy machinery

Aging affects a variety of health conditions and outcomes, including both chronic health conditions and the likelihood of on-the-job injury. However, the exact nature of these relationships has only recently been better understood, and it is quickly becoming clear that appropriate programs and support in the workplace, community, or at home can help workers live longer, more productive lives.

Chronic Conditions and Aging

Arthritis and hypertension are the two most common health conditions affecting older workers, impacting 47% and 44%, respectively, of workers over the age of 55. An even greater proportion of workers (more than 75%) are estimated to have at least one chronic health condition that requires management. Diabetes is perhaps the most costly of these; one study found that 1/3 of all Medicare spending goes towards management of diabetes. The frequency of these conditions and others in older adults has important implications for how and when workers can physically perform their duties. Higher morbidity can mean more absenteeism when an employee feels sick and more presenteeism when an employee is ill but shows up to work regardless. However, individual health risk factors are a stronger influence on future healthcare associated costs than advancing age alone. In comparing young workers with “high risk” of chronic disease (5 or more risk factors) to older workers with few or no risk factors, the younger workers had significantly higher medical costs associated despite the disparity in the age groups: 19-34 year olds, versus older workers aged 65-74.

Safety and Aging

As for safety on the job, workers who are older actually tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than their younger colleagues. This may be because of experience gathered from years in the workplace, or because of factors such as increased caution and awareness of relative physical limitations. The caution is well-founded. When accidents involving older workers do occur, the workers often require more time to heal, underscoring the need for a well-planned return to work program. In addition, incidents affecting older workers are more likely to be fatal, underscoring the need for employers to be mindful of how best to adapt the conditions of work to protect workers as well as explore opportunities for preventative programs that can maintain or build the health of employees through their working life.


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