Age Is More Than Just a Number… Protecting Older Workers to Help the Bottom Line

May 18, 2016

Older workers can be a valuable asset to any company. The institutional knowledge they bring, combined with their years of experience and a solid work ethic make them an integral component of any organization seeking to move forward successfully. Employers can realize the most benefit from their aging workers by ensuring they stay safe and healthy and recover quickly when they do become injured.

Due to elements of the natural aging process and often the presence of co-morbid conditions, older workers typically take longer to heal from their injuries than younger employees. With the prediction that 25 percent of the workforce will be at least 55 years of age by 2020, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has developed a variety of materials to help employers understand and address some of the unique characteristics of older workers.

A primary focus of NIOSH is roadway crashes — the leading cause of occupational fatalities for older workers in the U.S. Older workers are more likely to be injured in a crash and more likely to die if they are injured. In fact, they have twice the risk of dying in a work-related motor vehicle crash than younger workers. According to the government, death rates for work-related roadway accidents increase steadily beginning around age 55.

Driving ability can be affected by a variety of physical factors; such as reduced vision, slower reaction times, declines in cognitive functioning, and chronic health conditions. The good news is that the effects of these and many other conditions can be greatly reduced or resolved with treatment. Employers are advised to work with their employees do develop safety and health programs that consider older drivers’ needs. Some companies are taking this advice to heart, and seeing great results.

“The safety of older drivers in the workplace is a shared responsibility of employers and their employees,” NIOSH states on its website. “Forward-thinking safety programs, reasonable accommodations, and open lines of communication between employers and workers can help protect valued older employees from death or disability due to roadway crashes.”

Effects of aging

Becoming aware of bodily changes that can affect a worker’s driving ability is the first order of business for employers that seek to protect their older workers. According to NIOSH, the following are among those changes:

  • Diminished eyesight and the need for more light can affect driving ability in some people. Older workers affected may find it especially difficult to drive at dawn, dusk, and at night. Cataracts and macular degeneration may make it harder to read signs and see colors.
  • Diabetes can make blood sugar levels too high or low, which can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, or seizures. Arthritis may cause stiff joints, limiting movement of shoulders, hands, head, and neck and making it difficult to grasp the steering wheel or apply brake and gas pedals. And sleep apnea can increase the risk of drowsy driving. Medications can interfere with sleep quality, also increasing the risk for drowsiness.
  • Motor skills.As they decline with age, it can become more difficult to have the strength to step on the brake or gas pedal. A decrease in flexibility makes it harder to see all angles of the car. A lack of coordination can make it more difficult for the upper and lower body to work together while simultaneously braking and turning.
  • Mental abilities.Attention span, memory, judgment, and the ability to make decisions and react quickly may be affected. Older drivers may feel overwhelmed by signs, signals, pedestrians, and vehicles around them.

What you can do

So what can an employer do? For one thing, employers can instruct all workers regarding driving best practices…   use caution at intersections, especially when making left-hand turns, often a trouble spot for aging drivers. Helping older workers — as well as all employees — maintain their overall health is key to preventing tragic accidents.

What one company has done

One national transportation company, and a client of Tower MSA Partners, is protecting its aging drivers in a variety of ways. For one thing, the company employs a nurse who routinely calls all employees — whether they have company-sponsored health insurance or not.  The nurse discusses annual physical exams and ways employees can take better care of their health. That strategy alone has resulted in a significant number of employees having at least a primary-care-physician.

The company’s focus on health and safety has also led many employees with chronic conditions to get treatment for their hypertension, diabetes, and sleep apnea.

For older workers that do become injured, the company’s key focus is on actions that will bring the worker back to function and work in a timely and positive way. Sometimes that means temporarily covering a medication, for example, to allow surgery to move forward.

Return to work is also a challenge when drivers are injured.  For this company, a key step  in the rehabilitation process is to  engage a Return-to-Work company as soon as the injured worker is released to some level of activity.  Keeping the employee active and involved in the recovery process is critical to maintaining forward progress.   As the employer states, “the preventive work we are doing and our focus on return-to-work should help alleviate healing delays when/if a workers’ comp injury occurs.”

NIOSH suggests companies also develop and enforce a comprehensive driver safety policy, offer refresher driver training and encourage older workers to attend, and keep complete and accurate records of workers’ driving performances. Also, have policies that ban texting and hand-held phone use to prevent distracted driving, make sure work schedules allow workers to obey speed limits, and allow employees to take naps of less than 30 minutes or stop in a safe location if they are tired.

Tower’s perspective

As an MSP compliance company, Tower MSA Partners has a laser focus on best practices in claims management and settlement optimization when dealing with an aging workforce. We identify the co-morbid conditions that exacerbate injury severity, increase the cost of treatment and add time to rehabilitation, and seek to educate our clients as to potential exposure when these conditions exist.   Injuries are inevitable. Our goal is to know where claim cost can spiral out of control and assist clients to identify, intervene and mitigate before the MSA.

The pursuit of positive health choices to minimize accident frequency, and optimize recovery when injuries do occur, is paramount to improving claim, settlement and MSA outcomes.

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