Americans age 55 and older have the highest rate of fatal work injuries among all age groups, and it worsens as they get older. According to the Census of Fatal Occupation Injuries, the death rate for workers 65 and up was almost three times the national average in 2016, the last year figures were compiled.
Some would argue it's their own fault. Those older than 65 should retire, if it's financially feasible. But many haven't saved enough money. Instead they had to spend what they earned on raising children and trying to keep up with the never-ending bills.
The median savings for working-age families is $5,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the outlook for retiring baby boomers is even worse. "Half of all American households are at risk for not having enough to maintain their historical standards in retirement," according to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College.
Other economic issues are also forcing aging workers to stay on the job. One is an overall decline in pensions -- once considered the retirement mainstay of the working class. The percentage of American workers covered by traditional defined-benefit pension plans, such as those in the automotive industry, has almost been cut in half during the last 25 years.
Another is a pushback by financial advisers against taking Social Security benefits "early" at age 62, even those employed in physical jobs requiring a lot of bending, pushing, stretching and long hours. Sinceincreases them until age 70, potential retirees are advised that later is better. "The share of individuals claiming retirement at the earliest possible age has decreased," according to the Rational Retirement Risk Index produced by the CRR.
The status of the U.S. health care system is one more reason. Ironically, older workers remain on the job for health insurance, even though their potential for fatal accidents increases every year they continue to work. A study by the Center for Construction Research and Training in 2012 showed that older workers might be hesitant to switch to easier, less-demanding jobs because they would take a pay cut, along with a decline in pension and health care benefits.
Whatever the reason, the result is especially hard on men who remain in jobs that require physical effort and dexterity. Men of a certain age suffered 1,728 fatalities in 2016, while only 110 women died. On-the-job deaths in Rust Belt states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania were proportionately higher than in California. But they were lethal in Texas, which had the highest number of deaths at 160.
But none of this appears to stem the growth of older workers remaining on the job. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from 2010 show that 19 percent of workers were 55 and older and by 2015, that figure had jumped to more than 22 percent. At this rate, those age 55-and-over will account for nearly one-quarter of the workforce by 2024.
Overall, more people are dying on the job. In 2016, the number of deaths for all workers peaked at a high not seen in eight years, up 7 percent from 2015. Those 55 and older accounted for 36 percent of these fatalities, even though they made up only 23 percent of the workforce.
Reasons for older workers dying on the job include brittle bones, fading eyesight and a waning sense of balance. Not only do older workers die more often, they also average more days off to recover from injuries to the torso, back, shoulders and knees. On average, 65-year-old workers missed five more days a year than those between 45 and 54. And construction workers over 65 missed more than a month of work compared to a median of 10 days for all ages.
Statistics show that even though younger workers have proportionately the same number of job accidents, they experience much lower death rates. This is attributable to overall better health, which gives them the ability to survive a crash or limit the damage from a fall. By contrast, death rates for workers over 65 saw a huge difference, nearly 10 percent per 100,000 compared to less than 2 percent for 18- and 19-year-olds.
More than two-thirds of the jobs that lead to older workers' deaths are the ones they've probably always done and that require a lot of physical ability. Nearly one-third were in transportation, like long-haul trucking and material moving. About 15 percent were in construction, 9 percent in installation and maintenance jobs like plumbing, 6 percent in buildings and grounds maintenance, and 5 percent were farmers, fishermen and loggers. In contrast, only 14 percent were in "management."
But many companies still value older workers and dispute that they're weaker, more prone to fatal accidents and a poorer risk. "There's no standard for everyone," said Chris Hayes, who handles Transportation Risk Control for Travelers Insurance. "My personal trainer is 71, and he can outdo me in push-ups. If I maintain my health, I can be as strong as someone who's 20 years old."
Travelers' statistics show that 28 percent of all injuries happen during the first year on the job, which contradicts the argument against older workers. That figure almost doubles to 52 percent in the construction industry.
But Woody Dwyer, who handles Workers Compensation Risk Control for Travelers, believes older workers can be important in "transferring knowledge" younger employees need to keep safe on the job. "It's not enough to watch the video or a computer program in order to operate a complicated piece of machinery," said Dwyer. "You have to see it demonstrated in person."
There's little doubt physical ability deteriorates with age, but "you can't put an arbitrary date on when someone can no longer do the job," said Hayes. "If they have the ability to turn their head and the wheel, along with the visual acuity and mental cognition to track the vehicles around them, there's no reason why they can't drive [professionally]."
However, he's quick to add: "You ought to get in the cab with them once a year to check them out."