Workers aged 45 and older account for an increasing share of the US workforce.1 Employment by workers aged 45-54 has grown moderately, while workers aged 55-64 has grown steadily. With these trends expected to continue, do older workers’ injuries tend to be more severe than those of younger workers, and if so, what strategies can be used to reduce the cost of Workers’ Compensation claims for the older worker?
Are the injuries sustained by older workers more serious?
According to NCCI published data, younger workers tend to have an increased frequency of less severe back and ankle sprains, while older workers tend to have an increased frequency of severe rotator cuff and knee injuries that tend to result in lost time claims.2 Due to the increase in severity, older workers file slightly more lost time claims than their younger counterparts, with the outcome being generally more expensive. While higher wages and inflation for medical and litigation costs are important factors in claim costs, the increase in lost time claims may also be attributed to body deconditioning, the presence of comorbidities, and age-related deterioration.
What tools can the employer or adjuster use to control Workers’ Compensation costs?
Naturally, the tools that an employer uses to reduce frequency and severity and control costs for Workers’ Compensation claims for older workers and their younger counterparts differ according to their specific needs and may require different methods. Pre-loss methods are constantly evolving and may include 1) re-engineering of some positions; 2) using automation in manufacturing to assist older workers; and 3) redesigning the work so that it is less physically demanding.
For both younger and older workers, the communication tools and phraseology by the adjuster may affect the course of a claim. As an example, the adjuster’s words should focus on progress the employee has made decreasing their level of pain, not that the worker presumptively has pain. Questions that encourage jointly setting time based goals are more effective than asking if the worker thinks they will be able to return to work.
The way workers are treated after returning to work should also be considered. One employer found enrolling older workers in a wellness program with the ability to earn a “degree” for completion post-claim resulted in a significant decrease in second claims to the same workers. Another employer discovered that a collaborative attempt to make the workspace safer was cost effective and produced intangibles, such as an increased level of job satisfaction for the injured worker. Setting goals, engaging injured workers in post claim analysis, and educating older workers about a healthy lifestyle (smoking cessation, wellness programs, and health club memberships) may be as important as some of the more recognized strategies of on-site nurses and physical therapy tailored to all employees.
New technologies and practices and their implications to the Workers’ Compensation claims system are an evolving issue. While strategies and cost-saving measures vary by industry, outlining goals, setting achievable expectations, and maintaining communication can assist in working toward a successful outcome.
1Restrepo, Tanya, and Harry Shuford, "Workers' Compensation and the Aging Workforce." NCCI Research Brief, December 2011
2Restrepo, Tanya, and Harry Shuford, "Workers' Compensation and the Aging Workforce: Is 35 the New 'Older' Worker?" NCCI Research Brief, October 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” Occupational Outlook Handbook, date accessed April 2018.
Johnson, Denise. “Older Workers Effect on Workers’ Comp Injuries and Costs.” Claims Journal, January 25, 2016.
Schwatka, N. V., Butler, L. M. and Rosecrance, J. C., “Age in relation to workers’ compensation costs in the construction industry.” Am. J. Ind. Med., 56: 356-366. (2013)
Toossi, Mitra, and Elka Torpey, "Older workers: Labor force trends and career options." Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2017.