A report of conference presentations and discussions among participants from the National Academies of Science, universities and research institutions, and representatives of professional associations, industry and labor, recommends attending to workplace environments to maintain “work ability” as workers age. It also offers legislative fixes and research to fill in knowledge gaps for keeping workers healthy and productive.

According to research using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, older workers are more severely injured and die with greater frequency from work-related injuries than younger ones. Older workers also have longer recovery periods than younger workers. These findings raise healthcare delivery and economic issues for the nation, as more workers are choosing to delay retirement due to collapsed 401(k) plans and savings. The BLS uses workers age 55 and older in its calculations, although the rates rise sharply for those over age 65. Other agencies and organizations define the term as age 50 or 55 and up. The Department of Labor uses age 40 as a starting point for “older worker.”

“The issue of healthy aging is critically important as the U.S. economy is revitalized. As we go forward in time, the demand for workers will grow but fewer workers will be entering the work force, and a larger proportion of the work force will be older. This is a simple reality of demographics,” said John Howard, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) director.

The conference, held Feb. 17–18, 2009, at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., paid particular attention to workers in physically demanding jobs, such as construction and healthcare. Healthcare cost-containment has meant longer work hours and increased stress among healthcare workers, which has led to a shortage of nurses. Thirty-nine percent of registered nurses were 45 years old or older in 2002.

Construction workers already suffer the highest number of fatalities in any U.S. industry. But the death rate among construction workers 55 years and older was nearly 80 percent higher than that of construction workers under 35 in 2007. And like the rest of the work force, the average age of a construction worker is rising; it was 40.4 in 2008, which is 4.4 years older than in 1985. The average retirement age among construction workers is 61.

“Our nation loses an average of four construction workers every work day to a job-related incident, and that’s been consistent for more than a decade,” said Pete Stafford, executive director of CPWR, The Center for Construction Research and Training, one of the conference’s co-sponsors.

Howard believes the conference confirms and expands on a 2004 report from the National Academies of Science that recognized the deteriorating conditions facing an aging work force, to the detriment of workers, their families and businesses. “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” made clear recommendations to increase research efforts toward preventing work-related injury, illness and fatality among aging workers. These recommendations have yet to be adopted.

The full conference report and presentations from national and international researchers on occupational health and safety issues can be found on www.soeh.org.