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Study: Fatal work accidents far more common among older adults

A recent analysis by the Associated Press found that older workers are making up a growing proportion of the total workforce -- and also that they're at much higher risk for fatal workplace accidents. Are they more accident prone, more vulnerable, both or neither?

Before we answer that question, it's important not to assume that a higher fatal accident rate among older workers is a reason to keep them from working. That's discrimination. The fact that a group has a higher rate of something says nothing about any individual's ability or right to work.

It would be good to know whether the problem is that older people are more likely to be in accidents, or if they're prone to be more seriously injured in accidents than younger people would be. The distinction gives us some insight into whether the solution is better training and different safety supports, or perhaps a greater emphasis on accident reduction overall.

For its analysis, the AP considered data from several sources, among them the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census for Fatal Occupational Injuries, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Analyzing data from about the past 10 years, researchers noticed that workers between the ages of 55 and 70 make up a growing proportion of the overall workforce. They also found that, although the overall fatal accident rate among U.S. workers dropped between 2006 and 2015, that rate was between 50 and 65 higher among the older workers, depending on the year.

What types of accidents were older workers dying from?

The AP also looked into the types of fatal accidents affecting older workers, and their rates between 2011, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics changed its categorization, and 2015:

  • Fatal falls: Up 20 percent
  • Fatal contact with equipment or other dangerous objects: Up 17 percent
  • Fatal transportation accidents: Up 15
  • Explosions and fires: Down 8 percent

These accident types don't have an obvious connection to age or age-related health issues.

The co-director of Columbia University's Aging Center said she is not convinced that 55- to 70-year-olds need much greater safety protection than younger workers. "Are all those people needing protection now? Yes, absolutely. We are not paying enough attention to occupational safety in this country."

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