Safety Considerations for the Aging Construction Workforce

Contractors should strive to keep their most experienced workers on the job for as long as possible.
By Jake Freivald
April 5, 2022

The average American worker is getting older—in 2000, the median age of the labor force was 39.3, while in 2020, it was 42. This trend persists even in more physically demanding industries; the average age of plumbers is 42; 40.9 for electricians; 44 for miners; and 42.5 for construction workers, up from an average of 40.5 only seven years ago. And despite the pervasive idea in the trades that the capacity to work determines your age, or indeed whether or not you’re old whatever your age, clearly there are real issues around the aging construction workforce.

As just about anyone over 40 will tell you, healing is harder, and injuries that you would have shrugged off a decade earlier now can seem a permanent part of your life. Below we’ll explore the some of the statistics around aging construction workers when it comes to safety and risk of serious injury:

  1. Older workers get hurt less often from falls. A Dutch construction study found that workers aged 55 years and older were about half as likely to be injured from falls as workers under 20. While it stands to reason that for some tasks such as climbing ladders or working in elevated areas are more often assigned to newer workers than aged ones, it still is significant in showing that older workers are probably better able to identify risk and use greater caution.

  2. But older workers were more likely to get hurt badly from falls, particularly same-height falls. A study of non-fatal construction fall-related injuries found that workers older than 50 suffered fractures from falls at about the same rate as other more minor injuries, while younger workers had far more bruises and sprains than fractures. Older workers were more likely to be injured from same-height falls, such as from slipping or tripping over obstacles or uneven terrain.

  3. Older workers suffer more chronic conditions. Workers over 45 have much higher rates of musculoskeletal disorders of the neck and back, putting them more at risk for recurrent injuries. Older workers are also much more likely to be working with pain and physical limitations. It’s no surprise that about a third of workers older than 40 doubted their ability to stay employed in the construction industry until retirement age.

  4. Senior construction workers are at far greater risk of death from occupational accidents. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the death rate for construction workers over age 55 is 80% higher than that of workers under age 35.

Older construction workers are not only more likely to suffer certain injuries on the job than younger coworkers, but those injuries will also cost more to treat, and require more time to heal. For example, the financial cost from a fall injury is three times higher for workers over 45 than those under 30. In addition, when senior workers get hurt, they are hurt more severely and out of work for more days (for all workers, the median number of days off work for an injury is 13 days vs. 19 days for 55-64 and 30 days for over 65).

Tips for jobsite safety for older workers

While it’s generally accepted that older workers are more accident prone due to problems with motor coordination, sensory deficits and requiring more time to learn new tasks, it’s also true that younger workers have more accidents due to distractions, recklessness, overconfidence and irresponsibility. Clearly, no age demographic is without risks, and smart companies will do what they can to keep their most experienced workers on the job for as long as possible.

Recognize that no one job fits all. NIOSH recommends that employers allow workers to perform to their strengths by self-determining job tasks as much as the position will allow. While a 63-year-old may not be comfortable working on a ladder 20’ up, for example, he likely would have no problem completing tasks on the ground, facilitating workflow, or even mentoring new employees.

It’s the work you do, not how fast you do it. While work pace isn’t associated with an increased rate of accidents, high physical work demands were. A Danish study of aging construction workers found that a perceived fast work pace wasn’t associated with more injuries, however strenuous physical labor significantly increased the odds of occupational accidents. Allowing workers the flexibility to reduce the physical rigors of their work, such as by making more trips to transport materials so he isn’t required to carry as much at one time, for example, can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury.

Invest in worker training. Just because someone’s been doing a job for a long time doesn’t mean he or she couldn’t use refreshers, such as tool talks or morning safety briefings, to build and reinforce skills. As a 2019 EHSToday article noted, having a vast amount of experience can sometimes cause complacency, so it’s important to keep up with training regimens.

Make accommodations for returning workers. As a Canadian study revealed, for many injured construction workers, there seems to be no place for them back on the job. The study further revealed that few construction companies have return-to-work policies to support disabled persons, whether the disability is temporary or permanent, with the most significant barrier being the lack of suitable work. For staff coming back to work after an injury, reasonable accommodations along with defined return-to-work processes can make the difference between a productive return to normal duties and an unfortunate reinjury—or a permanent, total disability claim. For companies worried about the price tag for workers coming back after an injury, it should be noted that not every accommodation must be costly—sometimes the best, and easiest, solution is modified hours, allowing for periods of rest.

Create a safe working environment. “Good housekeeping” on the jobsite is always important, but it is particularly critical for reducing injury rates among older workers. Providing adequate lighting, keeping work surfaces free of oil, water, snow and other hazards, and safety protocols such as appropriate anchoring to prevent falls from elevations help everyone stay safe, not just the oldsters. Frequent onsite digitized safety inspections can keep supervisors informed of conditions on the ground, while sharing photos or videos of site conditions allow for easy identification—and remediation—of any likely issues.

Provide resources for help. As a Hong Kong study found, telephone or online resources for workers with health concerns not only serve to promote worker health and safety, but can also raise awareness of issues to supervisors who can make worksite and duties adjustments.

It’s a sad fact that none of us are getting any younger. The labor force, not just for construction workers, is getting older each year, compelling us as a society to learn how to accommodate that aging workforce. In addition, with so many young people eschewing the trades (and a majority of youth refusing to consider construction work for any amount of money), it’s doubly deserving of the time and effort to make the construction industry welcoming to older workers. With a few smart, practical modifications to the workplace, senior construction workers will continue to be able to meaningfully contribute to projects for years to come—and stay safe while doing so.

by Jake Freivald

Jake Freivald is vice president of product marketing at Fulcrum, a software company that digitizes safety and quality inspection processes for mobile teams. Freivald's 25-year career has focused on data management and analytics with an emphasis on helping businesspeople understand the practical requirements of modernization. Freivald has a BS in electrical engineering from Cornell University and lives with his family on Long Island, New York.

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