A 2013 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll asked older American workers -- those between about 55 and 70 -- about their job duties. A full 44 percent reported that their jobs required physical effort either "most of the time" or "almost all of the time." And yes, 36 percent reported that they have a harder time completing those physical duties than they used to.
Age does seem to bring about distressing changes, both physically and mentally, that can make physical work more challenging. That doesn't mean that older people aren't sticking around longer, even in construction and the trades. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of older people in the labor force grew by 37 percent, even though the overall labor force only grew by 6 percent. The federal government estimates that people between the ages of 55 and 70 will account for 25 percent of the labor market by 2024.
Unfortunately, all those experienced workers are also suffering more, and a greater proportion of, fatal workplace accidents. Between 2006 and 2015, according to an Associated Press analysis, the fatal accident rate among older workers was between 50 and 65 percent higher than for the average worker. And, over the same period, the overall workplace fatality rate dropped by 22 percent.
Are older workers more prone to accidents? Are they more physically vulnerable, meaning that they suffer greater harm than a younger person would in the same accident? Or is it simply working more exposes them to dangerous situations more often?
The AP analysis is quite detailed and well worth reading. It doesn't definitively answer those questions, but employers and worker advocates should try to. The answers would give us insight into how to reduce the risk for older workers.
One interesting factor to consider is the type of fatal accident. Here are some trends discovered in data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2011, when the Bureau changed its categorization, and 2015:
- Fatalities from falls went up by 20 percent
- Fatalities from contacting dangerous objects and equipment rose by 17 percent
- Transportation-related fatalities increased by 15 percent
- Fatal fires and explosions dropped off by 8 percent
None of the rising accident types is obviously connected to the victim's age.
"I'm just not positive that 55-70 year olds need so much more protection than workers 52-20," the co-director of Columbia University's Aging Center told the AP. She thinks the problem is systemic and not closely related to age. "We are not paying enough attention to occupational safety in this country."