When Cassandra warned the Trojans about a peculiar looking horse, she was ignored. In a somewhat similar vein, the Insider has predicted potentially dire consequences of an aging workforce: unable to retire, some older workers labor to the breaking point and then might hope to parlay workers comp into the retirement plan of last resort. So far it has not turned out that way. But a new study by Sage Journals confirms some of our concerns about risks among older workers and possibly even explains why fatally injured older workers might not show up on comp radar.
The Sage researchers set out to examine the relationship between fatal falls and age. They focused on the construction industry, which comprises only 8 percent of the American workforce, but generates 50 percent of all fatal falls. The frequency of falls among younger workers (here defined as under 55) was higher, but older workers who fell were more likely to die. (Kudos to Sage for defining older workers as 55+ - as opposed to the fairly meaningless federal standard of 40+.) The greatest risks for fatal falls occurred, not surprisingly, among roofers, iron workers and power line installers. Among roofers, older workers had a fall rate of 60.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, compared to 23.2 fatalities among younger workers. Older workers were more likely to fall from ladders. In addition, their fatal falls could occur at substantially lower heights than the fatal falls of younger workers.
As we continue to zero in on the problem, the workers comp dimension comes into focus. Fatal falls among older workers were more likely to occur in residential settings - worksites less likely to be overseen by OSHA or state authorities. And fatal falls were more likely to occur among small contractors, many of whom were sole proprietors. The study points out that nearly 40 percent of construction workers 55+ are self employed.
Therein may lie one of the clues to the mystery as to why workers comp costs among older workers have not risen at the rate we once anticipated. Among fatalities, a substantial portion of the workers were independent contractors and thus did not carry workers comp coverage; many states preclude coverage for sole proprietors. Even in states where independent contractors are allowed to enroll in comp, most did not bother, as the cost, often based upon the state's average industrial wage, is well beyond the means of a part-time, self-employed craftsman.
Case in point: In Massachusetts, a relatively low cost state for comp, the rate for roofers is $26.10 per $100 of payroll; the state average industrial wage is $42,700. A sole proprietor roofer would have to pay over $11,000 to secure the protection of a comp policy, even if his annual billings were less than the average industrial wage.
The Sage study points to a number of factors in the severity of falls among older workers. Over time, we all succumb to the biomechanics of aging: slower reaction times, decreased joint mobility, reduced elasticity of tissues and loss of strength. Based upon my own experience, mix in a little forgetfulness, an occasional lack of coordination, and you have a potentially toxic mix, especially in the context of heights and ladders.
The aging workforce is not about to go away. The Sage researchers point out that older workers - again, 55+ - totalled 17 million in 1998, reached 27.9 million in 2008 and are projected to reach 40 million by 2018. The median age in construction has gone from 34 in 1985 to 41+ in 2009; in the same period, workers 45 to 64 went from 25 percent to 34 percent of the workforce.
Given the absence of strong safety oversight in residential construction, the inevitable aging of the workers who perform residential work and the common use of ladders, we can expect the trend of fatalities among older construction workers to continue. The impact on workers comp is another matter altogether. It appears that many of the aging craftsmen working on our homes are independent contractors. When they fall, there is little or no safety net between them and the cold, hard ground.
Thanks to Julie Ferguson for the heads up on this research.