Age is just a number. But for the construction industry, those numbers continue to rise. Today, nearly one in four construction workers is age 55 or older. About 40% of all workers in the industry fall between the ages of 45 and 64.

These workers’ years of experience prove invaluable, especially when shortages of skilled labor continue to plague the industry. Yet, their advanced ages also present additional risks around safety and serious injuries.

John Todd, a Risk Management Consultant at Builders Mutual, highlights some tips for how contractors and crew alike can make safety a top priority for an aging workforce.

Why age is a risk factor

No age group is immune to job-site hazards. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 60% of construction injuries occur within an employee’s first year, which generally happens when a worker is younger.

However, older workers do tend to suffer more injuries, or more serious ones. Take falls, for example. One study found that workers ages 55 and older were nearly half as likely to be injured from falls as workers under 20. But older workers were prone to more severe injuries, such as fractures, compared with sprains and bruises. What’s more, older workers were more likely to be hurt from same-height falls, including slips and trips.

Years of demanding physical labor also place extra wear and tear on workers’ bodies. Older workers may be more likely to suffer from chronic back and neck conditions, including arthritis.

When older workers do get injuries, they require more-costly treatment and additional time to heal. For example, for workers over 45 compared with those under 30, a fall injury could cost three times more.

How contractors can help protect workers

What can a contractor do to help keep their most experienced workers safe?

Rotate jobs. Strenuous labor, day in and day out, has been shown to increase the odds of job-site accidents. It can help to rotate older workers through the many positions on a job-site. Maybe one day they are up on the roof, but then the next they’re in the office doing project management or on the ground mentoring new employees. Younger workers could pitch in more doing repetitive tasks such as lifting and transporting materials. The key is to match tasks to a person’s physical abilities.

Contractors could also offer older, skilled workers flexible work schedules or reduced hours, which will limit physical strains on their bodies.

Stay fit. Just like athletes warm up before a match, older workers could benefit from some pre-game stretching and simple exercises like jumping jacks. A stretching program can increase range of motion, which improves flexibility and eases joints. Some contractors incorporate these fitness moments into their daily safety meetings.

Support training. Even experienced workers can still learn a thing or two, especially when it comes to reinforcing skills around safety. Ergonomic training can help older workers learn how to lift and carry objects the right way, so they don’t hurt their shoulders or backs. Toolbox talks and regular safety briefings can keep workers aware of particular job-site dangers. For example, some older workers’ reaction times aren’t what they used to be. If they’re working around heavy machinery, they should pay extra attention to staying clear of this type of equipment.

Mitigate risks on the job-site. The most effective way to reduce injuries for any age group is to eliminate hazards. Make sure your job-sites are well lit and surfaces are free from oil, snow, or other slippery materials. Provide workers with the proper equipment – such as lifts instead of ladders, or prescription safety goggles.

Also, make the work environment as comfortable as possible. Provide anti-fatigue mats so workers don’t get tired on their feet, and allow for longer or more frequent breaks throughout the day.

Establish a return-to-work policy. If a worker gets injured and must take time off, maintain ongoing contact to understand their needs. Once they return, identify any necessary job modifications, provide transitional assignments, and make reasonable job accommodations.

Don’t discriminate. Older workers have certain legal safeguards provided by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other state and local laws and regulations. Employees who are 40 and older are protected by the ADEA from age-based discrimination. The ADA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with physical limitations. This may mean offering employees different roles or reduced hours.

If you have a conversation with an older worker about shifting job responsibilities, it would be a good idea to include a member of your human resources department.

How workers can help protect themselves

Older workers have a responsibility to protect their own well-being. Keeping physically fit is one way, as is seeking out healthcare for any chronic conditions that could limit their ability to perform their jobs.

Another simple – yet important – way is by speaking up. If workers notice their age may be affecting the types or amount of work they’re able to do, they should tell their supervisors. They can also:

  • Ask to rotate through tasks or train someone else, such as an apprentice.
  • Ask for the proper equipment, such as comfortable shoes or anti-fatigue mats.
  • Ask about their future with the company. Knowing what their role will look like can give them confidence that there’s a plan in place.

If you need a plan for accommodating older workers at your job-site, Builders Mutual is here to offer guidance. We can help you think about safety training, hazard elimination, and return-to-work programs for those who’ve been injured and are ready to come back to their jobs.

Contact your risk management consultant today about helping your aging workforce succeed.