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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Older Workers’ Physical Ability Not Matched to Job Demands, Washington Study Finds

Older workers whose physical abilities do not meet the demands of their jobs are at high risk of occupational injury, according to a new study from the University of Washington School of Public Health.

[Photo: Dr. Laura Fraade-Blanar]

As the population of older workers in the United States continues to grow – with more older adults employed than at any other time since the turn of the century – researchers suggest employers take steps to protect the aging workforce.

“Older workers generally have a lower incidence of injury compared to young and middle-aged workers, but when they do get injured, older workers sustain costlier injuries, require more time off and are less likely to ever return to work,” said Dr. Laura Fraade-Blanar, lead author who conducted the study as part of her doctoral dissertation for the School’s Department of Health Services. “Changes in physical health contribute to this burden profile.  We theorized that a mismatch or imbalance between the worker’s physical abilities and job demands, specifically if the job has demands that the worker cannot physically meet, could adversely influence health outcomes beyond job demand alone.”

For example, if your job includes moving heavy boxes, a task that requires physical strength, a worker with low physical strength would be at higher risk of occupational injury compared to an individual with high physical strength, Dr. Fraade-Blanar added.

Dr. Fraade-Blanar and the research team analyzed survey data from more than 5,500 Americans aged 50 or older from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) during the years 2010, 2012 and 2014. The HRS survey gathers data on health, employment and demographics from participants every two years.

Participants rated their job’s demands within three domains: physical effort; stooping, kneeling and crouching; and lifting. Researchers used these reports to measure subjective job demand and generated objective job demand through the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, an online database detailing 277 occupational attributes of 974 jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration sponsor the database.

The findings, published February 2017 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, showed that occupational injuries were more common among those who reported low physical ability compared with those who reported high physical ability.

“Results suggested that it was intensity of an action and how critical the action was to the job, rather than frequency of an action, that drove risk of occupational injury,” Dr. Fraade-Blanar said. “What’s more, among those with jobs considered to be highly demanding, individuals with low physical ability were at injury risk above and beyond those with high physical ability.”

Researchers suggest that employers adjust job demands by increasing mechanization, ergonomic adjustment or other functional modifications. They also suggest improving physical health through workplace health promotion programs. Such initiatives could benefit workers of all ages, the study noted.

“Preventing occupational injuries may help to keep workers healthier and active in the workforce, decrease job stress and turnover intent, and increase job satisfaction,” Dr. Fraade-Blanar said. “Research is ongoing to assess determinants of injury among older adults and ameliorating factors in order to increase our ability to retain and protect these workers in the workforce.”

Dr. Fraade-Blanar collaborated with several researchers from the UW School of Public Health, including Dr. Jeanne Sears, Dr. Kwun Chuen “Gary” Chan, Dr. Paul Crane and Dr. Beth Ebel. Dr. Hilaire Thompson also took part in the study.