The average age of a construction worker is now in the 40s. Baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – represent 40% of the construction industry 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 an individual’s musculoskeletal system.
Also, 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 have to be healthier than the general population, but the same physical demands cause workers with injuries or illness to leave the industry.
Some 10% of construction workers do not return to work after an injury, and those with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), lung disease or other serious injury are more likely to retire on disability than workers with the same conditions in less physically demanding types of work.
Compared to office workers, construction workers are also less likely to have health insurance and they 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.
Risk factors for older workers
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.
Physical workload is an important determinant of work ability among construction workers, and in turn work ability is highly predictive of disability among such people. A construction worker between the ages of 45 and 54 with a low work ability index and severe low-back pain has a 40-fold increased probability of disability retirement compared to a construction worker without those risk factors.
And if they are injured, it can take someone older than 40 twice as long to recover from a typical injury.
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.
What you can do
The study also found that construction roofers who had received job accommodation for an MSD or a medical condition were four times less likely to retire than 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. But, few employers provided new tools or equipment.
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.
Some of the common fallback excuses among baby boomer workers include:
- “I don’t need help!” – Some older workers won’t ask for help when lifting a heavy load that they think they could have easily hoisted when they were younger. This risks injury.
- “Deal with the pain!” – This old-school belief is that pain is part of the job, and that whining about it is for sissies. But if something hurts, the worker should stop and tell their supervisor.
- “I already know how!” – Many veterans are resistant to change in work processes or in using tools.
- “Get it done fast!” – A mentality of getting the job done quickly without following proper safety procedures, which can lead to injuries.
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