Workers 65 and Older Are 3 Times as Likely to Die From an On-the-Job Injury as the Average Worker

As the Boomers age and retirement insecurity forces workers to delay retirement, workers 55 and older are a growing part of the workforce. In 2014, older workers were 21 percent of the adult workforce based on hours worked—8 percentage points higher than their 13 percent share in 2000.

One unfortunate effect of this increased labor force participation is an increased exposure to workplace hazards, and with hazards come injuries and even death. Older workers are much more likely to be the victims of fatal occupational injuries than are younger workers. In 2014, nearly 35 percent of all fatal on-the-job injuries (1,621 of 4,679) occurred among the 21 percent of the workforce age 55 or older. The fatality rate for workers 65 and older is especially high—three times that of the overall workforce.

In the last year there was an alarming 9 percent increase in fatal workplace injuries among workers 55 and older, and a 17.7 percent increase among workers 65 and older. Nationwide, among all age groups, fatal workplace injuries rose from 4,585 in 2013 to 4,679 in 2014, an increase of 94 deaths. The increase in deaths among workers age 65 and older more than accounted for the entire increase in fatal on-the-job injuries.

It might be, as University of California, Davis professor Paul Leigh has suggested to me, that the same injury is more likely to kill an older worker than a younger one. We know, for example, that while injury rates are not higher for older workers, the median days away from work for each injury increases with age.

As the workforce continues to age, and as the Social Security retirement age increases to age 67, there is reason to worry that this hugely disproportionate death toll among older workers will continue to grow. In 2014, workers 65 and older constituted just 4.5 percent of total employment, but during the 12 months of 2014 they suffered 14 percent of fatal workplace injuries (656 of 4,679).

Blue-collar workers are far likelier to be the victims of fatal on-the-job injuries, and a higher normal retirement age will therefore result in far more deaths among blue-collar than white-collar workers. This disparate impact should be of concern to policy makers. Employers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should work together to protect this vulnerable segment of the workforce.