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Work with doctors to see if injury is related to work or age

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Issue: As the work force ages, more employees are suffering age-related injuries that appear to be work related.

Risk: You may wind up paying, in insurance and workers' comp costs, for injuries that aren't associated with the job.

Action: Work with physicians to distinguish between injuries that are work-related and those that are age-related.

You recognize the benefits of employing older people, but you may be overlooking an inevitable byproduct: the risk of higher insurance and workers' comp costs due to injuries brought on by the effects of natural aging.

Your goal: Determine which of those injuries are truly caused by work, and thus covered by workers' comp, and which are the result of normal aging. It's important to work with a knowledgeable physician who is trained at drawing such lines.

Fact: The length and cost of work disability is much higher among employees age 60 to 74, compared with people age 45 to 54, according to the Work Loss Data Institute.

Ohio's workers' comp agency calculated that the average cost of injury is about $5,000 for employees over age 70. The average injury cost drops to $3,300 for employees 50 to 59 years old.

Rising costs also are driven by increasing numbers of states that interpret workers' comp laws broadly to include all injuries that occur at work, whether they're directly caused by the job or not.

Advice: Develop a relationship with a responsive and reputable physician who has experience diagnosing and treating both older people and workplace injuries. Some call this emerging specialty "occupational geriatrics."

When an injury does occur, mandate medical care with a physician who understands workers' comp and how to treat occupational injuries. Such doctors can help you sort out whether injuries are work-related or age-related.

For example, knee pain from an injury could have an underlying cause, such as degenerative arthritis, which is common in older people. A physician with experience in making these types of evaluations can judge such a difference.

Anticipate risks, alter assignments

In addition to sorting out the root cause of seniors' injuries, take steps to prevent those injuries in the first place. All it takes, in many cases, is a few simple job modifications. Two examples:

1. Eliminate potential slips-and-falls. As employees age, their peripheral vision erodes, reflexes slow and bones and muscles weaken. Ensure adequate lighting, make sure floors aren't slippery, reduce workplace clutter and restrict ladder usage at excessive heights.

2. Reduce the physical strain of the job. Reconfigure workstations to reduce the amount of lifting, twisting, reaching, pulling, stooping or kneeling. Avoid awkward positions. Leave above-the-shoulder work to others. Provide lifting devices. Suggest employees perform work tasks between midthigh and midchest level. That avoids lots of bending, which can injure the back, arms and knees.

Online resources: For more on risk-control strategies, visit the Risk and Insurance Management Society at www .rims.org. Benchmark your workers' comp experiences at the National Council on Compensation Insurance site at www .ncci.com.

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