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Growing number of older workers, rise in fatal worksite accidents

A recent Associated Press analysis of federal statistics found that older people -- those between 55 and 70 -- are working quite a bit longer than they traditionally have. Baby Boomers may have rejected the traditional retirement date of 65, or they may simply need the income. Either way, statisticians expect them to make up a full 25 percent of the workforce by 2024.

They're not working desk jobs, either. A 2013 AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 44 percent of American workers aged 55 to 70 worked in a job that required physical effort either most or almost all of the time. At the same time, 36 percent reported having more difficulty completing the physical aspects of their jobs than they did when they were younger.

Sadly, older workers are also falling victim to more fatal workplace accidents than the workforce overall. Based on an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and American Community Survey data, the AP found that, between 2006 and 2015, the fatal accident rate among older workers was between 50 and 65 percent higher than average.

This is happening when the overall workplace fatality rate is dropping. Between 2005 and 2015, the annual number of deaths among all U.S. workers dropped from 5,480 to 4,836. The rate among older workers rose from 1,562 to 1,681 over the same period. At the same time, the proportion of older workers in the labor force rose by 37 percent.

Is it just that a greater number of older people are working, and thus more are exposed to fatal accidents than they have been? Are older workers more accident-prone due to age-related physical or mental changes? Do age-related changes make them more vulnerable to injury than younger people in the same situation?

Knowing the answers to these questions could give insight into the best way to address the problem. It's important to keep in mind, however, that statistics showing a group is more likely to be injured does not imply that any individual in that group will be. Treating older workers' vulnerabilities as the problem could bring about discrimination that is unwarranted and illegal.

Moreover, the co-director of Columbia University's Aging Center told the AP that she's not convinced the problem lies with age-related changes.

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

It's worth reading the entire article to understand the full findings of the AP's analysis. A major takeaway, however, is that employers need to focus on overall accident reduction.

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