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UI study shows older workers with disabilities at higher risk of injury

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Older workers with disabilities are 58 percent more likely to get hurt on the job than their counterparts without disabilities, according to a University of Iowa College of Medicine study.

The findings, included in the November issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggest that employers should take steps to accommodate older individuals with impairments to prevent occupational injuries.

"Our workplaces are designed for young, healthy workers," said Craig Zwerling, M.D., the study's principal investigator and a UI professor of preventive medicine and environmental health. "I would not expect the risk to change unless we improve the accommodations."

Zwerling, who directs the UI Injury Prevention Research Center, said that the need to provide additional safety measures for older workers with disabilities will become even more important as this group likely will increase in number in the near future.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 1988 Current Population Survey indicated that 6.9 percent of workers aged 55 to 64 had some sort of disability that limited their work in some way. However, the survey predated the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act requiring employers with 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities to participate in the workforce. In addition, the survey results do not reflect the large group of baby boomers that soon will begin entering the 55 to 64 age bracket. From 1994 to 2005, the number of working men age 55 to 64 should increase 43 percent, while the number of working women in that same age bracket will jump 63 percent.

Zwerling and his colleagues' look at older workers with disabilities follows their earlier study dealing with employees in general who had disabilities. Last year, the group found that, as a whole, employees with disabilities had a 36 percent greater risk of workplace injury.

Zwerling said there has been no extensive look at what progress employers are making in the area of accommodations. That issue is one Zwerling himself would like to investigate.

"There are a lot of questions still to be answered," he said.

Zwerling and his colleagues' most recent findings are based on responses from 5,600 individuals, age 51 to 61, included in a nationwide Health and Retirement Study based at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Between 1992 and 1994, the researchers contacted each of the participants twice. The investigators wanted to find out what, if any, work-related injuries the individuals experienced between their first interview and follow-up interviews.

As to which occupations posed the greatest risks for injury, the study found that mechanics and repairers, operators and assemblers, and laborers topped the list.