The average age of a construction worker is now in the 40s. In the construction industry as a whole, baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) represent 40% of the workforce, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training.
The nature of construction work presents many hazards for workers, many of which may not appear until late into a person’s career. Research suggests that long-term construction work impacts a worker’s musculoskeletal system.
In addition, any time an older worker suffers a workplace injury, they are more likely to be out of commission – and the road to recovery is longer.
Because of the physical demands of the work, construction workers who are employed have to be healthier than the general population, but the same physical demands cause workers with injuries or illness to leave the industry.
We know that 10% of construction workers do not return to work after an injury, and that construction workers with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), lung disease or injury are more likely to retire on disability than workers with the same conditions in less physically demanding work.
When compared to workers in an office environment, construction workers are also less likely to have health insurance and have an increased likelihood of developing a chronic disease as they age. Their odds also increase for developing lung disease, stroke, back problems and arthritis.
Lower-back injuries are a common injury experienced among construction workers. Also, as people age, they naturally lose strength and muscular endurance, which could have an effect on their ability to carry heavy loads. They may also lack the flexibility of younger workers and experience trouble working in awkward positions, making them more prone to a workplace injury.
Risk factors for older workers
Work ability is a measure of the balance between work and personal capacity, and older age is linked to a reduction in both quality of life and work ability.
The Work Ability Index (WAI) was developed in the early 1980s to identify factors that would sustain work as people age. The questionnaire is now available in 26 languages and is commonly used in research worldwide.
Physical workload is an important determinant of work ability among construction workers, and in turn work ability is highly predictive of disability among such workers. A construction worker between the ages of 45 and 54 with a low WAI and severe low-back pain has a 40-fold increased probability of disability retirement compared to a construction worker without those risk factors.
New research shows that reducing obesity, smoking and manual materials handling, plus improving the worker’s control over their own tasks, can keep construction workers successfully employed.
A study of U.S. construction roofers found that workers over 55 had lower physical functioning and were more likely to have both a chronic medical condition and an MSD.
The study found that older age, reduced physical function, and lack of job accommodation among these roofers were each predictive of early retirement. It also found that construction roofers who had received job accommodation for an MSD or a medical condition were four times less likely to retire compared to workers with similar medical status but without accommodation.
Some form of job accommodation was offered to more than 30% of the workers in the study, and many of the accommodations were relatively simple, such as allowing more time to accomplish a task or changing the work schedule; few employers provided new tools or equipment.
Experts agree that a culture change is needed to alter certain employer and worker behaviors and practices, such as:
“Dealing with the pain” – This old-school belief is that pain is naturally part of the job when performing construction work, and that whining about it is for sissies. But, if something hurts while performing work, the worker should stop and tell his supervisor.
Not asking for help when they should – This is particularly common when workers are lifting a heavy load that they think they could have easily hoisted when they were younger. This is dangerous and risks serious injury, which will take longer to recover from for a worker older than 40.
Workers who are set in their ways – Many veterans are resistant to change in work processes or in using tools.
Rushing – A mentality of getting the job done quickly without following proper safety procedures.
Poor health – Try to address the importance of staying physically fit and not smoking in order reduce the chances of workers injuring themselves at work and, if they do, increasing their chances of an early recovery.
In addition to increasing awareness of these attitudes, using the proper tools and work practices is important. Employers should also recognize the importance of job rotation among workers to help prevent repetitive-motion injuries.
Shifting focus from hazardous to safe work practices will help reduce injuries and keep older and more experienced employees safe and healthy on the job.