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Workers Compensation Issues

Challenges Posed by Aging and Unhealthy Employees

Joe Galusha | August 3, 2018

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Unhealthy and aging workers present unique challenges for risk managers, safety, healthcare, and benefits professionals. The goal is to assist in the prevention of diminishing productivity while bolstering employee wellness and well-being.

There is a tremendous, untapped opportunity for organizations to address the health and well-being of aging workers. In a study conducted by Ohio State University (Bacha 2017), researchers identified an average of $436,314 in avoidable healthcare costs at each location for each Fortune 100 company that participated in the study. Additionally, Fortune magazine estimated that only 7 percent of US companies possess a compressive plan to encourage employees to live a healthier lifestyle.

Younger Workers Show Declining Health

Ageonomics™ is defined as the scientific discipline concerned with understanding the interactions among aging humans and other elements of a system and applies theoretical principles, data, and methods to optimize the aging human's well-being and overall performance. Source: Responding to the Needs of an Aging Workforce, Aon, April 2014.

According to Aon ergonomist and Ageonomics professional Vicki Missar, a review of key data points indicates a general health decline in the workforce. From a scientific perspective on aging, human strength peaks at age 25 while bone mass peaks around 30 years of age. After the age of 25, the body slows its recovery from consenescence, or the aging process. Aon's internal health and benefits database shows that younger workers are entering the workplace with at least one comorbidity. This, combined with scientific data, demonstrates the need to expand the model and include workers ages 25 and older into Ageonomics programs. Ms. Missar points to additional scholarship to support this argument.

According to a study by Barkin (et al. 2010), as Millennials enter the workforce, the growing prevalence of obesity among their generation may negatively impact their productivity and resulting economic prosperity. For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) noted in the total US population that 22.7 percent of adults have arthritis, and arthritis is even more common among people with other chronic conditions. The CDC found that adults who were obese, had diabetes, or heart disease were approximately 1.5, 1.7, and 1.9 times more likely than those without the corresponding condition to have arthritis, respectively.

The research strongly indicates that the younger workforce appears to have many of the comorbidities of our aging workers (defined as those aged 45 and older). By incorporating workers 25 years and older into the traditional aging workforce program, organizations can implement a more fluid and cohesive approach that addresses aging issues earlier—ultimately creating a solid foundation for a safer, healthier population in the future.

Table 1. Research Indicates Negative Impacts on Health and Function
Obesity Aging
Obesity doubles work limitations Decreased strength
Elevated heart rate Muscle mass reduced
Reduced lung function Reduced fitness level
Slower reaction time Lower aerobic capacity
Decreased joint range of motion Body fat doubles
Poor visual acuity
Poorer auditory acuity
Slower cognitive speed and function


Karsten Keller and Martin Engelhardt, "Strength and Muscle Mass Loss with Aging Process," Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal, October–December 2013, p. 346–350.

"Health Risks of Being Overweight," National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Issues, February 2015.

Leveraging Data

Data can be overwhelming, but it can also tell a convincing story. When thinking about aging worker strategies, success is dependent on expanding traditional reporting models beyond siloed injury data, absenteeism data, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs. Without comprehensive and concrete data that show where injuries are occurring and where productivity is lagging due to aging factors, there is limited rationale for leadership to invest in advanced mitigation strategies that would likely benefit the organization over the long term.

Ms. Missar adds that, without integrating core workforce population health data to support and identify the scope of the problem, a company's wellness (or well-being) program may be missing a profound opportunity to tell the story as it is. That profound story, in and of itself, is the overall health of the population. Diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and obesity are the most common comorbidities in aging workers, and these workers may be struggling with productivity in a system that is void of safe, effective, and sustainable safety and health programs. Pharmacy data, health data, absenteeism data, 401k participation, engagement data, and biometric screening data are all critical factors in telling the tale of the true total cost of risk (TCOR). 

Applied Ageonomics - Galusha - August 2018

Responding to this issue will require the company's senior leaders to partner with its human resources, risk management, safety, and wellness representatives. Armed with the right data and analytics, organizations can rethink how wellness dollars are spent and reassess how much financial investment is needed to create an age-friendly work environment that also responds proactively to worker complaints and injuries.

Renew Your Efforts

Refreshing the data and creating unified, collectively managed metrics is also fundamental for overall success. For example, organizations can leverage new approaches to data, such as aligning with the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability (CSHS). This organization advocates for including human capital metrics in annual 10-K reports and encourages organizations to elevate safety and health programs. Through comprehensive and strategic initiatives, real and impactful change can occur. These initiatives could include the following.

  • Age-related incidences, cost leakage, lost productivity, and time-off-work analysis
  • Prescriptive wellness programs based on workforce health data and insights
  • Physical demands assessment for jobs performed
  • Americans with Disabilities Act compliant disability management and interactive process guidelines
  • Workplace stretching programs
  • Wellness incentives
  • Executive steering committee for Ageonomics
  • Environmental excellence (e.g., 5S)
  • Ergonomic risk-factor reduction
  • Workplace design for aging workers
  • Post-complaint/injury job coaching
  • Employee surveys for early recognition of workplace issues
  • Continual TCOR measurements to monitor program impact

Aging Workforce Is Not Temporary

The age shift in the US workforce is not a temporary phenomenon. The median age in many labor-intensive industries is projected to rise over the next 20 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force will continue to age, with the average annual growth rate of the 55 years and older group projected to be 1.8 percent—more than three times the rate of growth of the overall labor force. By 2024, the median age of US workers is expected to be 42.4 years old.

US Labor Force Shares by Age - Galusha - August

Age is not just a number. If the aging workforce is struggling with its own health, an integrated safety and health program is paramount to the success of the company. Forward-thinking organizations that embrace strategies fueled by data-driven insights will ultimately reduce risk and increase worker health and well-being.

Ageonomics™ is a registered trademark of Aon.

The author would like to acknowledge and thank coauthor Vicki Missar, my colleague and ergonomist and Ageonomics™ professional, for her insights, collaboration, and research on this topic.

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