Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Older Workers…and Insider Bias?

October 18th, 2005 by

The Insider has written with some frequency about older workers. With a majority of the workforce now over 40, employers and risk managers face a new set of challenges in keeping older workers healthy and productive. One recent post notes the increase in the incidence of rotator cuff injuries among older workers. We also have blogged the financial necessity that leads people to work longer. They might want to retire, but they are simply unable to do so.
One reader responded to our most recent blog on older workers by questioning whether the Insider has a bias. With all our dire warnings about risks of injury increasing with age, are we signaling to management to avoid older workers? Are we encouraging discriminatory practices?
As one who meets any known definition of older worker, I can state personally that we have no interest — and would not support — any movement to discriminate against older workers. The Insider’s job is to keep track of the data and alert our readers to any significant trends in risk and loss management, whether they involve a 16 year old summer hire or a 75 year old driver. We are not focused on age per se, but on risk. If certain risks increase with age, management needs to be aware of it and take appropriate steps to ameliorate the risk.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) has published an interesting study (PDF) of carpal tunnel claims in the workers compensation system. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) ranks second behind back injuries as the leading lost-time diagnosis. In terms of the total costs of all claims, CTS also ranks second. Here’s the kicker: compared with back strain cases, CTS claimants are more likely to be higher paid…and more likely to be older. In addition, the severity of the claim tends to rise with age.
So here we go again: The Insider is alerting management that older workers are more likely to get CTS (not a surprise, really, as CTS involves trauma that accumulates over time). And we are reminding managers that the older the worker, the more expensive the claim. Before we draw any conclusions, let’s look a little closer at the data.
Among all claims tracked by NCCI between 1996 and 2000, CTS ranks second behind lumbar disc displacement in terms of total loss costs, with just under $1 billion incurred for CTS claims 18 months after the injury. Lumbar disc problems resulted in $1.4 billion incurred at the same point in time. Here are some additional details in the comparison of CTS to lumbar strains:
: CTS cases are more likely to result in lost-time claims
: Women suffer relatively more CTS injuries, while men incur more back injuries
: Workers suffering CTS injuries are more likely to be higher paid than workers incurring back injuries.
: Compared with back strain cases, CTS claimants tend to be older (over 35)
[We need to note that NCCI defines “older” as 35 and up, which is certainly one of the more generous definitions we have seen. For most purposes, including most age discrimination laws, older work begins at 40.]
The average total incurred cost at 18 months for CTS was $12,181, compared to $29,701 for lumbar disc displacement. However, CTS accounted for 1.8 per cent of total claims, while lumbar disc comprised only 1 per cent. In other words, the severity of CTS was lower, but the frequency higher. It’s worth noting that rotator cuff sprains (another big risk as you get older — see our blog here) ranked fourth in total incurred and averaged $21,907 per claim. Once again, injuries with age-related risk factors are among the most expensive.
Responding to the Data
NCCI’s conclusion is rather blandly worded: “As the workforce ages over the coming decades, these findings suggest that insurance companies and employers need to carefully monitor some of the financial and demographic characteristics of CTS injuries.”
This wording is a bit too circumspect for the Insider. An aging workforce presents serious problems and requires concerted action. As workers get older, managers need to focus safety and prevention programs on age-related risks. Cross-train people to the degree possible, rotating them through jobs that call upon different body mechanics. If people must do the same task every day, all day, bring in a wellness expert to teach stretching and conditioning.
The solution to age-related risk is surely not discrimination. Let’s face it, given the experience of your aging workers, they are a far greater asset and less of a risk than hiring young, inexperienced strangers, assuming you could even find them. Savvy employers make the commitment to keeping all workers safe, healthy and productive, regardless of age. That’s where risk management begins and where it rightly ends.