Older Workers and Comp: Low Risk and A Few Surprises

January 19th, 2010 by

NCCI has issued its latest report (PDF) on the status of older workers in the comp system, with a particular focus on workers 65 and up. If nothing else, the study reinforces the notion that older workers are safety conscious and a relative bargain. For employers worried about workers comp costs, older workers are not a significant problem.
In 1988 eleven percent of workers 65+ participated in the workforce; now 17 percent of these older workers are still working. That percentage will likely increase as the long-term effects of the financial collapse continue to resonate through the damaged economy. Some people continue working because they want to; many more continue because they have no choice.
Injury Prone?
The frequency rate for older workers varies by occupation: in construction, older workers appear to be safer than younger workers – they are injured at a 4 percent rate, compared to 12 percent for their younger colleagues. The results are flipped in retail/sales: older workers are injured at a 23 percent rate, compared to 15 percent for all others.
As you might expect, the leading cause of injuries for 65+ workers are slips, falls and trips – 47 percent of all injuries for this cohort. (Younger workers suffer these injuries at a 24 percent rate). For strains and sprains – the overall leading cost-driver for workers comp – the results are reversed: the frequency for older workers is 23 percent, compared to a whopping 38 percent for all others.
It does take longer for older workers to recover from injuries: they have a median days-away-from-work rate of 16, compared to 12 days for workers in the 55 to 64 group and 10 days for workers 45-54. Despite this higher rate, overall indemnity costs are lower. Why? Because older workers make substantially less on average than younger ones. Wages peak in the mid-50s and then fall off dramatically after age 65, down to the same level as the entry level 20 to 24 group. So much for the notion of paying for experience!
The only red flags in the study involve the retail trade and service/hospitality industries, where older workers are showing higher-than-average costs for comp. These jobs probably offer ample opportunity for slips, trips and falls, the number one cause of injuries for these workers, .
It will be fascinating to watch NCCI’s study evolve over the next decade. The percentage of workforce participation for the 65+ group is going to increase steadily. With this growth, the risks will be enhanced. There is likely to be an upward trend in both frequency and severity, but perhaps not as much as feared. Certainly, the NCCI study reinforces the argument that older workers are safe, reliable and motivated. There is no reason to discriminate against them. If anything, you could make a good case for preferring an older worker to a younger one. Fodder for further thought, indeed.
NOTE: Special thanks to reader Soon Yong Choi for spotting an error in an earlier version of this post (see comments). Given my checkered track record with numbers, I can only hope that Choi and similarly adept readers continue to cast a critical eye on any of my postings where statistics are involved.

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