Monday, September 13, 2010

Demographic impacts on workers' compensation

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to speak about demographics to a Lunch n’ Learn audience at the Richmond offices of WorkSafeBC. This is a broad topic with implications for all of us: our families, our economies, and the world of workers’ compensation. There are global trends but the impacts are local –some are even personal—and cannot be ignored.

All of us are getting older individually—that’s obvious. What makes this time in our history so interesting is how the various age categories are distributed. One writer noted that more than half the people who have ever lived beyond the age of 65 are alive today. In developed countries, 70 million people will retire in the next 25 years…and be replaced by just 5 million young people entering the labour force.

So, what are the local impacts? Glancing at our Statistics book for 2009 provides some interesting facts:

· The average injured worker was over 40 years of age—a new record.

· More than 34% of claims first paid last year went to female claimants—another record.

· The percentage of claims first paid to workers under 25 fell to just 14% of our total volume and represented just 10% of our serious injury claims;

· Nearly 15% of claims first paid were to workers over the age of 55 and they account for 17% of our serious injury claims.

Graphing the distribution of time-loss work injury claims by age in BC, we can see a clear shift over the last twenty odd years. This shift is not just a function of changes in the provincial population profile.

Clearly, injuries to younger workers have declined. We have made gains in making workplaces safer for younger workers, technology has made jobs safer, our Regulation now requires specific safety orientation to new workers—all those initiatives have contributed to the decline in injuries in younger age categories. The age group 45-49 now has the highest number of claims. This increase in injuries to older workers is not a temporary phenomenon; we are likely to see more injuries to some older workers (and some very old workers) in the coming years.

This shift will continue to put upward pressure on duration. Older workers take longer to recover and often have pre-existing co-morbid conditions that may make recovery more complex. The risk of fatal injury actually increases with age.

None of this is really ‘news’. The predictions have been out there for years. The human body has not changed much with respect to its time to recover following injury. It stands to reason that a workforce with older workers getting injured will tend to have overall longer recoveries.

What are we to do in the face of these demographic trends? The fundamentals are the same:

· prevent injuries,

· rapid first aid when injuries occur,

· accurate diagnosis,

· effective and timely treatment and rehabilitation,

· consistent connection between the worker and the employer,

· timely safe and durable return to work.

The fundamentals, however, need to be responsive to the realities of the population of injured workers. Strategies tailored to young workers have been effective; a similar approach to reach older workers and women will hopefully have similar positive results.

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