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Article

January 2020

Fatal occupational injuries to older workers

Using data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries program of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this article examines the fatal injury experience of older workers during the 1992–2017 period. The analysis finds that older worker fatalities reached a series high in 2017, and that, compared with workers overall, older workers were more likely to be fatally injured on the job.

The number of American workers age 55 and over (hereafter referred to as older workers) more than doubled from 1992 to 2017.1 This increase is due both to a rising U.S. population of people age 55 and over and to a higher labor force participation rate for that population.2

Since 1992, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) program has published detailed national data on fatal workplace injuries.3 While workers overall saw their fatal occupational injuries decline by 17 percent from 1992 to 2017, older workers incurred 56 percent more fatal work injuries in 2017 than in 1992. This trend is especially pronounced for workers in the oldest group, those age 65 and over. This group experienced 775 fatal occupational injuries in 2017, the highest number ever recorded in the CFOI, representing an increase of 87 fatal injuries since 2016 (the previous series high) and a 66-percent increase since 1992.

In addition to seeing an increasing number of fatal injuries, older workers were more likely than workers in general to be fatally injured on the job. In 2017, the fatal injury rate for workers age 65 and over was 10.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, and the rate for workers age 55 to 64 was 4.6 per 100,000 FTE workers.4 Both rates were higher than the rate for all workers (3.5 per 100,000 FTE workers).

Using CFOI data for 1992–2017, this article provides an overview of the fatal occupational injuries incurred by older workers in the United States. In addition, it contrasts the fatal injury experience and latency periods (of injury and death) of older workers with those of workers age 54 and under (hereafter referred to as younger workers). The article also highlights an occupation with a high number of fatal workplace injuries to older workers—farmers. In 2017, older workers accounted for 80 percent of workplace fatalities in this occupation.

Overview

From 1992 to 2017, 38,200 older workers died because of a workplace injury. This figure represents 26 percent of the total number of fatal occupational injuries incurred by all workers during that time. Over the period, workers age 55 and older accounted for 17 percent of all employed workers.

The number of fatal occupational injuries to older workers ranges from a minimum of 1,234 in 1992 (the first year in which CFOI data were published for the entire United States) to a maximum of 1,930 in 2017. (See table 1.) While the number of fatal injuries to workers age 54 and under declined during this time, the corresponding number for older workers increased. (See figure 1.) In recent years, fatal occupational injuries among older workers have accounted for an increasingly large percentage of all fatal occupational injuries. In 1992, 20 percent of fatal occupational injuries were incurred by older workers, and by 2017, that figure had risen to 37 percent. At the same time, workers age 55 and over represented 12 percent of all workers in 1992 and 23 percent in 2017.

 Table 1. Fatal occupational injuries, by age, 1992–2017
YearAgePercent of total for workers age 55 and over
All ages55 to 6465 and over55 and over54 and under

1992

6,2177674671,2344,98320

1993

6,3318115221,3334,99821

1994

6,6328665251,3915,24121

1995

6,2758275151,3424,93321

1996

6,2028555041,3594,84322

1997

6,2388755201,3954,84322

1998

6,0558365411,3774,67823

1999

6,0548165651,3814,67323

2000

5,9208314881,3194,60122

2001

5,9157755301,3054,61022

2002

5,5347844951,2794,25523

2003

5,5758025231,3254,25024

2004

5,7649075691,4764,28826

2005

5,7349335781,5114,22326

2006

5,8409635991,5624,27827

2007

5,6579345741,5084,14927

2008

5,2149205801,5003,71429

2009

4,5518535511,4043,14731

2010

4,6909485821,5303,16033

2011

4,6939365691,5053,18832

2012

4,6289365881,5243,10433

2013

4,5859335571,4903,09532

2014

4,8211,0076841,6913,13035

2015

4,8361,0316501,6813,15535

2016

5,1901,1606881,8483,34236

2017

5,1471,1557751,9303,21737

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among older workers who died from a workplace injury in 1992–2017, about one-third (13,556) were between the ages of 55 and 59 and 0.4 percent (135) were age 90 and over. (See table 2.)

Table 2. Distribution of fatal occupational injuries among older workers, by age, 1992–2017
AgeFatal injuries (number)Percent of total

55 and over

38,200100.0

55 to 59

13,55635.5

60 to 64

9,90525.9

65 to 69

6,11016.0

70 to 74

4,02410.5

75 to 79

2,6316.9

80 to 89

1,8394.8

90 and over

1350.4

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The states with the highest shares of fatal occupational injuries to older workers in 1992–2017 were Nebraska (39 percent), Iowa (39 percent), North Dakota (37 percent), South Dakota (37 percent), and Wisconsin (35 percent). While Texas and California had the largest numbers of fatal occupational injuries to older workers over the period, their shares were lower (22 and 23 percent, respectively) than the national average (26 percent). (See figure 2.)

During the 1992–2017 period, older workers were more likely to incur a fatal workplace injury than workers in general. In calculating fatal injury rates, the CFOI program has used two different methods: an employment-based method from 1992 to 2007 and an hours-based method from 2006 to 2017.5 The hours-based fatal injury rates of workers age 65 and over were 14.9 per 100,000 FTE workers in 2006 and 10.3 per 100,000 FTE workers in 2017. The rates for workers age 55 to 64 were 5.2 per 100,000 FTE workers in 2006 and 4.6 per 100,000 FTE workers in 2017. Hours-based rates tend to be higher for older workers because these workers generally work fewer hours.6 In 2007, the last year for which both employment- and hours-based rates are available, workers age 65 and over had an employment-based rate of 10.2 per 100,000 employed workers and an hours-based rate of 13.5 per 100,000 FTE workers. (See table 3 for full details on fatal injury rates by age group.)

Table 3. Fatal occupational injury rates per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, by age, 2006–17
YearAll agesAge 18 to 19Age 20 to 24Age 25 to 34Age 35 to 44Age 45 to 54Age 55 to 64Age 65 and over

2006

4.24.03.13.33.74.25.214.9

2007

4.03.53.43.13.44.14.913.5

2008

3.72.42.82.83.33.84.712.7

2009

3.52.52.42.43.03.64.312.1

2010

3.62.82.22.72.93.64.711.9

2011

3.53.02.52.42.93.84.411.0

2012

3.42.92.42.42.73.54.210.3

2013

3.32.62.22.52.83.44.19.2

2014

3.42.02.32.42.83.64.310.7

2015

3.42.12.72.32.73.54.39.4

2016

3.61.92.42.53.13.54.79.6

2017

3.52.62.22.52.93.34.610.3

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau.

Comparing older and younger workers

The fatal injury experience of older workers exhibits some unique characteristics that set it apart from that of younger workers. These characteristics may be due to, among other things, older workers’ different employment patterns, different job tasks, and higher likelihood of incurring an injury resulting in a fatality.

One way to identify areas in which the fatality experiences of two groups differ is to use the propensity ratio measure devised by Reginald Harris.7 This ratio measures the prevalence of a particular aspect of an experience in two different groups, regardless of the size of the groups. For example, consider a case in which homicides accounted for 40 percent of the fatalities in group A and 20 percent of the fatalities in group B. The propensity ratio for homicides for group A would be 2.0, meaning that the share of fatalities attributable to homicides for group A is twice (100 percent) as large as that for group B.8 A propensity ratio of 1.0 indicates that a particular aspect of an experience has the same prevalence in both groups. In the following analysis, the propensity ratio is used to compare the fatality experiences of older and younger workers.

Table 4 presents propensity ratios, along with fatality counts, by employment status, gender, and race or ethnicity. The data for self-employment clearly stand out. In 1992–2017, self-employed older workers accounted for 35 percent (13,400) of the 38,200 total fatal injuries incurred by older workers. Over the same period, self-employed younger workers accounted for 15 percent (15,977) of the 106,098 total fatal injuries incurred by younger workers. Therefore, the propensity ratio for self-employment for older workers is 2.3 (35 percent divided by 15 percent), meaning that the share of older worker fatalities attributable to self-employed workers was 2.3 times larger than the corresponding share for younger workers. (See table 4.)

Table 4. Fatal occupational injuries and propensity ratios, by age, employee status, gender, and race or ethnicity, 1992–2017
CharacteristicFatal injuries to workers age 54 and underFatal injuries to workers age 55 and overPropensity ratio for workers age 55 and over
NumberPercent of totalNumberPercent of total

Total fatal injuries

106,09810038,2001001.0

Employee status

Wage and salary workers

90,1188524,800650.8

Self-employed

15,9771513,400352.3

Gender

Women

8,47282,57970.8

Men

97,6269235,620931.0

Race or ethnicity

White, non-Hispanic

71,7776830,822811.2

Black or African American, non-Hispanic

11,347113,07080.8

Hispanic or Latino

17,372162,89580.5

Asian, non-Hispanic

3,094391920.8

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2003–17, two occupations—farmers and heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers—had the largest number of fatal occupational injuries to older workers (3,217 and 3,772, respectively).9 However, while heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers accounted for similar percentages of fatal injuries to older and younger workers (16 percent for older workers and 14 percent for younger workers), farmers accounted for a much higher percentage of fatalities among older workers than among younger workers (14 percent for older workers and 2 percent for younger workers). Thus, the propensity ratio for farmers is 6.3, the highest among occupations or occupational groups with 500 or more workplace fatalities from 2003 to 2017. (See table 5.)

Table 5. Fatal occupational injuries and propensity ratios, by age and occupation, 2003–17
OccupationSOC codeAgePropensity ratio for workers age 55 and over
All agesAge 54 and underAge 55 and over

Agricultural managers (farmers)

11-90104,3811,1643,2176.3

Construction managers

11-90215773452321.5

Firefighters

33-2011510431790.4

Police and sheriff's patrol officers

33-30511,6711,5181530.2

Security guards

33-90329246422821.0

First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping workers

37-10125203731470.9

Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners

37-20116614322291.2

Landscaping and groundskeeping workers

37-30111,4269984281.0

Tree trimmers and pruners

37-30131,0148291850.5

First-line supervisors of retail sales workers

41-10111,5859696161.4

Cashiers

41-20116905591310.5

Retail salespersons

41-20315513771741.1

Farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse

45-20921,2269372890.7

Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural animals

45-20937525422100.9

Fishers and related fishing workers

45-30115844701140.6

Fallers

45-40217885262621.1

First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers

47-10111,7791,1486311.3

Carpenters

47-20311,2909623280.8

Construction laborers

47-20613,8923,2866060.4

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators

47-20737395132261.0

Electricians

47-21111,2079302770.7

Painters, construction and maintenance

47-21416444831610.8

Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters

47-21505634461170.6

Roofers

47-21811,1049281760.4

Automotive service technicians and mechanics

49-30236584971610.7

Industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers

49-90401,0397273121.0

Line installers and repairers

49-90506695651040.4

Maintenance and repair workers, general

49-90715043101941.4

Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers

51-41216795241550.7

Miscellaneous production workers

51-9190521423980.5

Commercial pilots

53-20121,0406164241.6

Driver/sales workers

53-30317785682100.8

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers

53-303211,0697,2973,7721.2

Light truck or delivery services drivers

53-30331,1477633841.1

Taxi drivers and chauffeurs

53-30419105823281.3

Industrial truck and tractor operators

53-70515384251130.6

Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand

53-70621,6081,2583500.6

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The large propensity ratio for farmers is also seen in the events resulting in fatalities among older workers. For the events that precipitated fatal work injuries from 2011 to 2017 (all of which had at least 800 fatalities), the largest propensity ratio was for nonroadway transportation cases (1.9), with the subcategory of nonroadway noncollision incident cases standing out with a ratio of 2.1.10 (See table 6.) These latter cases include overturns of tractors and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) for farmers.

Table 6. Fatal occupational injuries and propensity ratios, by age and event or exposure, 2011–17
Event or exposureFatal injuries to workers age 54 and underFatal injuries to workers age 55 and overPropensity ratio for workers age 55 and over
NumberPercent of totalNumberPercent of total

Total fatal injuries

22,23110011,6691001.0

Struck by object or equipment

2,186101,396121.2

Fall to lower level

2,611121,825161.3

Exposure to electricity

891415810.3

Roadway incident involving motorized land vehicle

5,497252,830241.0

Nonroadway incident involving motorized land vehicle

826481171.9

Nonroadway noncollision incident

595365162.1

Jack-knifed or overturned, nonroadway

398243742.1

Pedestrian vehicular incident

1,344682171.2

Homicides

2,3831174860.6

Suicides

1,363649340.7

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Older farmers—a closer look

In 2003–17, 1 in 7 fatally injured older workers was a farmer. Fatally injured older farmers are remarkably similar demographically, particularly when contrasted with other fatally injured older workers. The following are some of the notable characteristics of the 3,217 older farmers who died of an occupational injury in 2003–17:

-        98 percent were self-employed (compared with 23 percent of other fatally injured older workers)

-        99 percent were born in the United States (compared with 86 percent of other fatally injured older workers)

-        98 percent were non-Hispanic White (compared with 77 percent of other fatally injured older workers)

-        96 percent were men (compared with 92 percent of other fatally injured older workers)

-        61 percent incurred their fatal injuries in the Midwest census region11 (compared with 23 percent of other fatally injured older workers)

Fatal injuries to older farmers constitute a larger percentage of fatalities among older workers in certain states. States with high propensity ratios for older farmers include Iowa (propensity ratio of 5.0), South Dakota (4.6), North Dakota (4.5), Nebraska (4.3), Kansas (4.1), Missouri (3.6), Montana (3.6), and Minnesota (3.4). (See figure 3.)

In addition to having similar demographics, fatally injured older farmers are alike with respect to certain aspects of the incidents leading to their deaths. From 2003 to 2017, 47 percent (1,502) of the 3,217 fatal injuries to older farmers involved a tractor,12 and in most of these cases, the decedent was driving the tractor. Another 10 percent (334) of older farmer fatalities involved other agricultural and garden machinery. In 222 cases (7 percent), an older farmer was killed in an incident involving a tree (e.g., being struck by a falling tree). A total of 218 older farmer deaths (7 percent) occurred in incidents involving ATVs, and another 203 deaths (6 percent) involved animals such as cattle and horses. (See table 7.)

Table 7. Fatal occupational injuries and propensity ratios for farmers, by age and source or secondary source of injury, 2003–17
Source or secondary sourceFatal injuries to farmers age 54 and underFatal injuries to farmers age 55 and overPropensity ratio for farmers age 55 and over
NumberPercent of totalNumberPercent of total

Total fatal injuries

1,1641003,2171001.0

Tractors

382331,502471.4

Agricultural and garden machinery

14312334100.8

Trees

67622271.2

Animals (e.g., cattle and horses)

73620361.0

ATVs

59521871.3

Pickup trucks

80714750.7

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Latency

In a 2013 Monthly Labor Review article,13 William J. Wiatrowski describes a “continuum of [injury] severity” that includes the following categories of injury cases:

-        Medical treatment beyond first aid, with no time away from work or restricted activities

-        Job transfer or restriction

-        Days away from work

-        Fatality, which may be further divided into immediate or delayed, often resulting from complications

One aspect of this continuum of severity pertains to whether certain types of cases are more likely to occur among certain groups of workers. Table 8 contains data on fatal occupational injuries to older and younger workers by latency, which is the time between the date of injury and the date of death. The table shows that 93 percent of all older worker fatalities occurred within 30 days of injury, compared with 97 percent for younger workers.

Table 8. Fatal occupational injuries, by latency and age, 1992–2017
LatencyFatal injuries to workers age 54 and underFatal injuries to workers age 55 and over
NumberPercent of totalNumberPercent of total

Total fatal injuries

106,098100.038,200100.0

Died on the same day as the incident

89,31684.228,75675.3

Died 1 day after the incident

5,0794.81,8244.8

Died 2 to 3 days after the incident

2,6482.51,3073.4

Died 4 to 7 days after the incident

2,6082.51,2983.4

Died 8 to 30 days after the incident

3,5703.42,3836.2

Died 31 to 180 days after the incident

1,2701.21,0822.8

Died 181 to 365 days after the incident

2860.32000.5

Died 366 to 1,095 days after the incident

3740.42120.6

Died 1,096 to 1,825 days after the incident

1810.2960.3

Died 1,826 or more days after the incident

6910.71,0102.6

Note: Latency data are not available for all cases.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The age data element in the CFOI is the age of the worker at the time of his or her death. Therefore, in the present analysis, a worker injured at age 25 who dies because of complications from that injury at age 60 would be considered an older worker. However, looking solely at cases in which the worker dies within 30 days of his or her injury minimizes any issues arising from differences in age at the time of injury and the time of death. For cases where the date of injury and the date of death were no more than 30 days apart, younger workers were more likely to die on the day of injury (87 percent, compared with 81 percent for older workers), whereas older workers were more likely to die 1 to 30 days after the injury (19 percent, compared with 13 percent for younger workers).

This discrepancy in latency could stem from older and younger workers incurring different types of injuries, suffering injuries of different severity, or having different susceptibility to dying from complications. While the CFOI does not have an exact measure of severity, certain combinations of injuries suggest that older workers are more susceptible to specific types of injuries and/or complications. For example, of the 146 fatal occupational injuries due to hip fractures from 1992 to 2017 (for which the death was within 30 days of injury), 90 percent (131) were sustained by workers age 55 and over and 10 percent (15) by workers age 54 and under.

Conclusion

Older workers account for an increasingly large share of the workforce and of workplace fatalities. Many of these workers, particularly older farmers, face unique hazards in the workplace. With the help of detailed data from the CFOI, safety and health experts can continue to tailor their efforts to best meet the needs of older workers and to keep them safe during their careers.

Suggested citation:

Sean M. Smith and Stephen M. Pegula, "Fatal occupational injuries to older workers," Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2020, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2020.2.

Notes


1 Data are from the Current Population Survey (CPS) (series ID: LNU02024230, https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU02024230, accessed June 12, 2019). The CPS, administered jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics (BLS) and the U.S. Census Bureau, publishes monthly data on the U.S. workforce, using a stratified sample. The number of employed workers age 55 and over was 14,339,000 in 1992 and 35,299,000 in 2017. Both figures represent annual averages.

2 Data are from the CPS (series IDs: LNU00024230, https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU00024230, and LNU01324230, https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU01324230, accessed January 16, 2019). The civilian noninstitutional population age 55 and over was 50,618,000 in January 1992 and 92,204,000 in December 2017. The labor force participation rate for people age 55 and over was 29.3 percent in January 1992 and 39.7 percent in December 2017. The labor force participation rates are not seasonally adjusted.

3 Data on fatal occupational injuries are from the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). The CFOI is a federal–state cooperative program that compiles data on all fatal occupational injuries in the United States. To identify and profile fatal occupational injuries, the CFOI uses a diverse set of source documents, such as death certificates, workers’ compensation reports, media reports, police reports, and reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For more information on the CFOI, see https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm.

4 A full-time equivalent worker equates to an employee working 2,000 hours annually (40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year).

5 For more information on fatal injury rates from the CFOI, see https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm#rates. Employment data are from the CPS and, for certain years, from the U.S. Department of Defense (https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshnotice10.htm). Employment data from the U.S. Department of Defense were used to calculate employment-based national fatal injury rates from 1992 to 2007. For 2006 and 2007, the CFOI produced both employment- and hours-based rates. Because of methodological differences between the two systems, the rates based on them are generally not comparable. However, it was determined that the rates for older workers were sufficiently similar to allow for a comparison in this article.

6 See table 22, “Persons at work in nonagricultural industries by age, sex, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, marital status, and usual full- or part-time status,” Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), https://www.bls.gov/cps/aa2017/cpsaat22.htm.

7 For more information on propensity ratios, see Reginald Harris, “Suicide in the workplace,” Monthly Labor Review, December 2016, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2016.54.

8 Conversely, the propensity ratio for homicides in group B would be 0.5.

9 From 2003 to 2017, the CFOI used the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system to define occupations. Before that, it used the U.S. Census Bureau’s occupational classification system. Because the two systems use different definitions, direct comparisons between them are not possible. The SOC uses six-digit codes to characterize occupations. The present analysis uses only five- and six-digit codes. Farmers are classified under SOC 11-9011 (farm, ranch, and other agricultural managers) for 2003–10, SOC 11-9012 (farmers and ranchers) for 2003–10, and SOC 11-9013 (farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers) for 2011–17. The CFOI used the 2000 SOC system from 2003 to 2010 and the 2010 SOC system from 2011 to 2017.

10 Events are coded on the basis of the Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System (OIICS), version 2.01 (https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshoiics.htm).

11 The Midwest census region includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

12 The term “involved” refers to the fatal injury’s primary and/or secondary source (per OIICS), in this case a tractor.

13 William J. Wiatrowski, “Using workplace safety and health data for injury prevention,” Monthly Labor Review, October 2013, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2013.34.


article image
About the Author

Sean M. Smith
smith.sean@bls.gov

Sean M. Smith is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Stephen M. Pegula
pegula.stephen@bls.gov

Stephen M. Pegula is an economist in the Office of Compensation and Working Conditions, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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