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Workplace fatalities among older workers twice the rate of others

The Baby Boom generation appears to have abandoned the traditional idea of retiring around age 65 -- or they can't afford to do so. For whatever reason, the government estimates that older workers will make up 25 percent of the labor market by 2024.

Even as people continue working longer, a dismaying new trend has arisen. The rate of fatal workplace accidents among those 55 and older has far outpaced that rate among younger workers. This is the case even though the overall rate of workplace fatalities fell dramatically -- by 22 percent -- between 2006 and 2015.

According to an Associated Press analysis, 35 percent of workplace fatalities in 2015 involved someone 55 or older. That represents 1,681 fatalities among older workers out of 5,836 overall. Keep in mind that older workers won't account for 25 percent of the workforce until 2024, so a 35 percent rate is exceedingly high.

In fact, depending on the year, the rate of fatal workplace accidents among older workers was between 50 and 65 percent higher than the rate for all workers.

The good news is that between 2005 and 2015, the total number of on-the-job deaths fell from 5,480 to 4,836. Unfortunately, over the same period, the number of workplace deaths among those 55 and over rose from 1,562 to 1,681.

One epidemiologist interviewed by the AP suggested that aging itself may be the key factor. The physical changes associated with aging "could potentially make a workplace injury into a much more serious injury or a potentially fatal injury."

However, a co-director of Columbia University's Aging Center wasn't sure it was the effects of aging causing the problem. Instead, it might be that industry needs to pay more attention to safety overall.

The AP looked into the most common types of accidents causing older workers' deaths between 2011 and 2015. It excluded any deaths from natural causes, such as heart attack, even if they might have been tied to a work-related cause. The results were somewhat surprising:

  • Deaths from falls: up 20 percent
  • Deaths from contact with dangerous objects or equipment: up 17 percent
  • Transportation-related deaths: up 15 percent
  • Fires and explosions: down 8 percent

None of those four types seems directly related to declining abilities due to age, so it wouldn't be fair to say that older workers are necessarily more vulnerable to these types of accidents. It might be true that what would be a serious accident for a younger person could be fatal to an older one.

The most important take-away from this analysis seems to be that, while workplace fatalities overall are down, more still needs to be done to prevent these tragedies in the workplace.

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