American employers have been seeing big changes in on-the-job injury numbers as the workforce gets older and emerges from the pandemic.
Travelers, a major provider of workers compensation insurance, detailed the trends in its 2023 Travelers Impact Injury Report, which analyzed more than 1.2 million claims submitted from 2016 through 2020.
Age was an important factor, according to the report.
Middle-age workers, 35 to 49, had the highest percentage of injuries, 31%, compared with other age groups.
And injuries to workers 60 and older were the costliest to treat. Payouts for the group totaled nearly 15% more than for employees between the ages of 35 and 49 and approximately 140% more than those ages 18 to 24.
The Travelers report notes that the number of older employees in the workforce is increasing, a trend that is expected to continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of people in the workforce who are 65 and older will account for more than 60% of the growth in the labor force over the 2020-2030 decade.
According to BLS data, in 2001, 19.484 million Americans 55 and older, or 13.6% of the workforce, were working. In 2021, the number had risen to 37.648 million, or 23.4%. The bureau projects that in 2031, there will be 41.494 million older Americans on the job, or 24.6% of the workforce.
Comorbidities biggest cost driver
Travelers executives interviewed by Rethinking65 cautioned that age itself is not the primary factor in the higher compensation claims for older workers. “Comorbidities” — existing health conditions like diabetes or obesity — are the biggest driver of higher medical bills for injured workers in general, said Rich Ives, vice president of business insurance claim for Travelers.
“If you have a comorbidity, the cost of your claim is twice as much,” Ives said. “If you have two or more comorbidities, the cost of your claim is fivefold. That’s regardless of your age.”
Because older workers are more likely to have such pre-existing conditions, their medical bills are more likely to be higher, he said. Additionally, older workers take longer to recuperate from injuries, resulting in more days lost than younger workers, Ives said.
“You’re just not going to bounce back and recover from an injury as fast when you’re older as you would when you were 20. I wish that was the opposite way around as I get older, but unfortunately, that’s just not the case,” he said.
Age shouldn’t deter hiring
But that shouldn’t discourage businesses from employing older workers, said another Travelers executive, Chris Hayes, assistant vice president, transportation and workers’ compensation, risk control.
“They bring that knowledge, their ability to adapt and work in new environments. Understanding all the things that a person brings is important — understanding that people can be fit at an older age and less fit at a younger age. It really makes it about hiring the right individual for the job and not putting as much focus on that age,” Hayes said.
Pandemic-related injury trends
The executives said other notable trends in worker injury claims are the result of the pandemic.
The Travelers Injury Impact Report found that first-year employees, regardless of industry experience, were among the most vulnerable, accounting for 34% of workplace injuries and almost 7 million missed workdays. Ives explained that as businesses reopened and recovered from the pandemic shutdown, they needed to hire new employees. The spike in hiring created a large pool of inexperienced workers who were more prone to accidents, he said.
“As a matter of fact, over the last 24 months, we’ve seen that grow. More than half of the workers compensation injuries are coming from individuals in the job less than a year, so … as you exit out of the pandemic, some of these trends that we’re highlighting only continue to go in that direction,” Ives said.
On-the-job injuries at home
Another pandemic-related employment trend — the increase in individuals working from home — has had the opposite effect on workplace injuries, the executives revealed.
“The total number of our workers compensation claims that come from individuals who are injured at home has been minimal,” Ives said. “It really represents less than 1% of our reported claim volume.”
That comes despite U.S. Census Bureau data showing that between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home tripled from about 9 million people, or 5.7%, to 27.6 million, or 17.9%.
“And so, they’re working from home, they’re not on business travel, the risk is less,” Ives said. “If they’re not on premise, they’re less apt to be injured walking across the slippery parking lot … or just slipping, tripping, falling in an on-premise operation.
On-the-job injuries at home are covered just as they are in the workplace, Ives said.
“If an individual was injured, regardless of their location, while they were in the course and scope of their work, that would be a workplace injury. So, location is somewhat irrelevant as long as they were injured in the course and scope of their employment,” he said.
“With more work from home, the frequency actually goes down, and actually the severity of losses when somebody’s injured at home because you’re largely talking about an ergonomic injury, or something of a minor nature than you would from an individual who was injured while doing a heavy labor job somewhere,” said Ives.
Overexertion is main culprit
According to the Travelers report, the top cause of accidents across all industries was overexertion (29%). That includes strains and injuries from actions like twisting, reaching, lifting, jumping, wielding, or using a tool or machinery.
In small business and the construction industry, slips, trips and falls were the top injuries. They had the highest average cost per claim, followed by motor vehicle accidents. Slips, trips and falls kept injured employees out of work for an average of 83 days, while those who were involved in a motor vehicle accident were away from work for an average of 79 days, according to Travelers.
Nevertheless, a 2020 report by the Centers Disease Control and Prevention had some good news for businesses: The number of workplace injuries has declined. From 2016 to 2019, worker injuries exceeded 2.8 million each year. In 2020, the number was 2.654 million, and in 2021, it was 2.607 million, the CDC reported.
In a four-decade career in journalism, Ed Prince has served as an editor with many of New Jersey’s leading newspapers, including the Star-Ledger, Asbury Park Press and Home News Tribune.