With the aging population, older workers make up a significant and vital part of the Canadian labour force. Those aged 55 and over tend to have knowledge, experience, and dedication that make them valued workers.
However, older age is also associated with an increase in the prevalence of many chronic health concerns, raising the question of whether age-related conditions boost the risk of work-related injury. Until recently, little research had been directed toward improving our understanding of any possible links.
According to a recent study supported by WorkSafeBC, it appears there’s good news for employers and older workers alike: no statistical difference was found in the relationship between age and work injury across occupational groups or across time periods.
In other words, the greater participation of older British Columbians in the workforce and the potential for workers to remain in particular occupations have yet to result in any changes in the relationship between age and injury risk.
The past three decades have seen dramatic changes in the Canadian labour force. Between 1985 and 2007, the percentage of the workforce aged 45 years and older increased from 23 percent to 36 percent. Also, between 1995 and 2007, the rate of those working or looking for work among 55- to 64-year-olds rose from 31.5 percent to 43.1 percent — with increases also occurring among workers over age 65.
This dramatic rise in the number of older workers has understandably led to a larger proportion of compensation claims from older workers. In B.C., workers aged 55 years and up submitted fewer than 10 percent of all wage-replacement claims in the 1980s and 1990s — but almost 20 percent of claims in 2011.
No relationship between age and claim rates
The study was headed by Peter Smith, senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Ontario. Using data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, along with data from WorkSafeBC and Population Data BC, the research team explored four occupational characteristics: strength requirements of the job; if the occupation involved working near or with equipment that could be a potential source of injury; whether the occupation involved an environment with enough constant or intermittent noise to cause distraction or possible hearing loss; and if the occupation involved working inside with an unregulated climate, where the temperature or humidity could be considerably different from normal room conditions.
The team also tracked industries and sectors where workers were employed when they were injured (such as primary resources, manufacturing, construction, transportation/warehousing, trade, public sector, and services sector), as well as parts of the body that were hurt.
“The decision to stay in the labour market is likely driven by both choice and financial necessity,” Smith says. “There was a perception that if less healthy workers were staying in the labour market due to financial necessity, these workers might be more likely to get injured at work. So our objective was to find out whether this was really the case. Based on our findings, the increased participation of workers in the labour market has not led to differences in the relationship between age and claim rates.”
The percentage of work-related injuries was greater among people with chronic conditions, with the highest rates being for those reporting chronic back problems (4 percent), arthritis (3.6 percent), and diabetes (3.5 percent). Similar patterns were observed for repetitive strain injuries, with the highest rates among workers with arthritis and back problems (14.1 percent) and heart disease (10.2 percent).
“One potential explanation for why older workers take longer to return to work following an injury is because they have to be at a higher percent of their total functional capacity to work, and it takes them longer to return to this level following an injury,” Smith says. “We were interested in understanding whether these age differences in the consequences of injury were greatest when occupational physical demands are high. We thought this might be the case because, if achieving a certain level of functional capacity is one of the driving factors behind return to work, then this difference would be more pronounced in more demanding occupations compared to less demanding occupations. However, we found that age differences were present in both less physically demanding and more physically demanding occupations. As a result, older age is associated with worse return to work and health care outcomes regardless of the occupational demands.”
Physical demands were taken into account as well. The study found that older workers in physically demanding occupations have similar injury outcomes as younger workers, and older workers in less demanding occupations have similar outcomes as younger workers in the same job category.
Age and health care services use, post-injury absences
Despite observing no relationship between age and risk of injury in B.C. compensation claim data, older workers have higher health care use and days away from work following an injury.
A large proportion of age differences in both health care expenditures and days of wage replacement was due to older workers sustaining more severe injuries (e.g., older workers were more likely to be hospitalized in the two days following an injury).
The impact of chronic conditions on differences in health care expenditures and days of wage replacement depended on the type of ailment. Those with osteoarthritis, diabetes, and depression had greater health care expenditures and days of wage replacement than those without. Osteoarthritis and diabetes were more prevalent among older workers, representing a pathway linking older age to greater health care expenditures and wage replacement days following injury.
The results of this study suggest that the increasing prevalence of chronic conditions, particularly arthritis, back problems, diabetes, and heart disease, will have important implications in the prevention of workplace injuries.
To help keep workers safe, an impact could be made by focusing on the prevention of particular types of injuries more common among older workers — such as injuries stemming from falls.
“It’s important to understand what the modifiable factors are that lead to worse return-to-work outcomes among older workers, as these could potentially be targeted to reduce expenditures for the workers’ compensation system,” Smith says.
WorkSafeBC research director Lori Guiton says studies such as this one demonstrate the value of data analysis.
“In the hands of experts, data collected routinely by organizations like WorkSafeBC can be put to work in powerful ways, answering key questions that help us enhance policy and practice to keep workers safe.” She adds, “The findings of this study show us areas where we might put more emphasis, like the prevention of falls that lead to bone trauma or head injuries, or in case management for workers with pre-existing chronic conditions. Above all, it is so encouraging to see that greater participation of older people in the B.C. workforce has not led to significant differences in injury risk.”
Insights into injuries
- Sprain and strain injuries posed the greatest risk for men and women aged 35 to 44.
- Among men and women, younger age was associated with a greater risk of open-wound injuries.
- Older age was associated with a greater risk of traumatic bone, nerve, and spinal-cord injuries.
- Middle age (35 to 44 years) was associated with the highest risk of trauma to muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and musculoskeletal and connective tissue diseases and disorders.
Reprinted from the March/April 2016 issue of WorkSafe Magazine with the permission of WorkSafeBC.