It’s not your imagination that  today’s workforce is increasingly gray.

According to a new study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), workers 55 years of age and older are the fastest growing segment of the working population. By 2012, this age group will make up more than 19 percent of the workforce.

Living longer while, at the same time, living through serious economic turmoil is keeping many older workers at their jobs years longer than they anticipated. For example, as of 2007, construction workers over the age of 45 made up 34 percent of the industry’s workforce. In 1985, this same age bracket was 25 percent. Average retirement age is also on the rise. In 1994, construction workers typically retired around the age of 59. Today, the average age is closer to 62.

While some may regard this as a drawback, NIOSH Director John Howard sees older workers in a different light, calling them the “chronologically gifted.” These seasoned employees bring expertise and dedication to the jobsite as well as mentoring opportunities for younger, less experienced workers. The downside is what can happen when they get hurt on the job. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), when injured, older workers have more severe injuries and are more likely to die from work-related injuries than younger workers. It also can take them longer to recover from common injuries, and their likelihood of suffering a fracture from a fall is increased.

Because construction is more physically demanding than most industries, some observers presume that older workers are problematic. However, simple, inexpensive measures will abate construction’s most common, injury-causing hazards. Employers can store materials off-ground for easier lifting, keep cranes, forklifts, carts and dollies readily available and supply lighter weight, better-designed hand tools.Chances of falls can be reduced by making sure that walkways are level and by shortening distances to staging areas. Administratively, employers can take employee ability into account when assigning tasks, implement task rotation to reduce the likelihood of injury from sustained awkward postures and repetitive movements and establish flexibility in schedules. Steering older workers away from ladder work, for instance, is a sound risk management plan. Finally, open lines of communication with employees helps ensure that all risks for injuries are addressed before someone gets hurt.

These measures are not merely accommodations for older workers. They make the construction site safer for everyone while also helping to keep projects on schedule and within budget. Moreover, younger workers will remain in far better shape as they age because they will not suffer as many injuries during their careers. Plus, they will have more time to be mentored by older, more experienced peers who have been able to stay on the job longer.

Steps taken to keep older workers working can help keep all workers working. The entire industry benefits.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]