On November 11, 2010, Eva LaBonte, Risk and Benefits Analyst for Clean Water Services (Hillsboro, Oregon), presented an informative lecture entitled, "Will You Still Need Me When I'm 64? Workers' Comp for an Aging Workforce," at the 19th Annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. A claims expert for the past 17 years, Ms. LaBonte highlighted the risks associated with the aging American workforce and identified the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which that phenomenon impacts organizations. She identified a number of measures that firms can utilize to reduce the overall impact of aging issues—succession planning and loss prevention—and argued that the benefits of making changes was not limited to an organization's older employees.
Our Aging Workforce
LaBonte provided her audience with important contextual elements. She reminded the group that following the end of World War II, the United States experienced a huge increase in its birth rate. Indeed, more than 79 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. As those persons have moved through society's infrastructure—schools, housing, the employment world and health care—their sheer numbers have sometimes strained society. As they move into retirement, the phenomenon will continue; 64 million "boomers" are poised to retire in the next five to ten years. Will they actually retire? LaBonte stated that over the next five to ten years, while the overall number of employees in the country is expected to grow by 8.5%, the number of workers over the age of sixty-five is projected to increase by more than 83%. Yesterday's seniors took their gold watches and walked away from the workplace. Today's seniors are not likely to do so.
LaBonte indicated that the postponement of retirement had positive effects on our society. Indeed, if all retirement-aged workers were to retire "on schedule," the result would be potential labor and skill shortages and a rapid draining of the labor pool. She reiterated that all signs point to unwillingness on the part of many seniors to retire. They may want to slow down, but not jettison the workplace altogether. Studies show that workers can be productive later into their lives than earlier thought. We also now have greater opportunities for healthier living. Many aging workers see at least some continuation of employment as a key to longer lives. LaBonte indicated that at many firms and organizations, older workers could add true value.
LaBonte noted that successful firms need to devote time, energy and resources to succession planning. She added that succession planning should not be confused with replacement planning—a more basic process of identifying employees who can step in as back-ups. Replacement planning is important in order that a firm can effectively react to a sudden departure or an unanticipated personnel change. Succession planning, on the other hand, is a more systematic approach for long-term objectives. It involves the identification of internal talent pools and honest assessment of what the firm needs to do in order to develop the total skill set of its employees and harvest the benefits that flow from the firm's talent.
It sometimes comes as a surprise to firms, but most successful enterprises have rich stores of explicit knowledge—information that is organized in a particular way for future retrieval. A firm's cache of documents, databases, spreadsheets, policies, and manuals can be vital to succession planning. LaBonte indicated that a more subtle asset—the firm's tacit knowledge—should not be ignored. Tacit knowledge, LaBonte stated, is the "stuff" employees carry around in their heads. This tacit knowledge is often difficult to access—many employees are not aware of what they possess. Yet tacit knowledge can be more valuable than explicit knowledge, since it provides vital context for ideas, experiences, people, and places. It is not easily captured, but a firm's future may depend upon it.
Risk Assessment and Control for Older Workers
LaBonte observed that as firms take advantage of the values associated with older workers, they must not ignore certain physical factors associated with the aging process. She noted that as we age
• We lose some muscle strength and flexibility
• We experience reduced grip strength, range of motion, nervous system responses and visual capacity
• We tire more easily, we enjoy less endurance and diminished postural steadiness
• Chronic diseases are more prevalent – Diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis
In some older workers, there can also be a decline in mental function. Complex problem solving and multitasking often become more difficult. With age comes a general increase in motor vehicle accidents.
A number of health problems are disproportionately found among seniors. LaBonte noted that since 46% of adults consider themselves couch potatoes, obesity is a major contributing factor in industrial accidents and the care that follows. Multiple studies show that obesity can complicate treatment and recovery time. Obese workers file twice the number of workers’ comp claims and incur 7 times the medical costs of non-obese injured workers. Obese employees miss 13 times more work due to occupational injury or illness.
LaBonte identified other generational differences among workers:
• Mature workers more often push through the pain
• They are less likely to report injuries and often continue working, aggravating the injury
• Falls are the leading cause of death for adults over 65
• A worker’s ego may make it hard to acknowledge reduced muscle strength and coordination
To reduce the number of injuries sustained by aging workers, special programs are usually necessary. LaBonte also indicated, however, that in planning injury prevention program for aging workers, firms should remember that most injury prevention methods will be effective regardless of the age of the workforce. She counseled that the key to managing the injury risks of an aging workforce is to examine those conditions and processes that may be overlooked when considering the risks of a younger workforce.
American Society of Safety Engineers Recommendations
While firms should recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to minimizing injuries among older workers, the ASSE has some important recommendations. Firms should improve lighting and color contrasts within the workplace. They should eliminate heaving lifting, elevated work from ladders, and long reaches from the job duties of older employees. They should design work floors and platforms with smooth and solid decking, while still allowing some cushioning. Other recommendations include:
• Reduce static standing time
• clutter from control panels; use large video displays
• Reduce noise levels
• Utilize hands-free telephone equipment
Managing the Workers’ Compensation Claims
LaBonte advised that when an injury occurs, careful analysis of all root causes should be undertaken. She repeated the sometimes forgotten mantra, "Hurting at work versus Hurt by work. The workers' compensation investigation should always include not only an analysis of the mechanism of the injury, but consideration of the worker's outside activities and current medical issues. She advised that when the major contributing cause of the injury is in question, one should gather injury information in writing and do it quickly. Firms should also take care to use the same form and process for every employee injury to avoid discrimination.
Acknowledging that claims involving older employees can often be challenging, retaining loyal, experienced workers can have more benefits than drawbacks.
This article was written by Thomas A. Robinson.
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