In recent years, the evolution of the American economy has placed a spotlight on workers across industries, a force that is changing almost as quickly as the nation’s financial outlook. Upward shifts in average worker age and percentage of workers aged over 55, along with rapidly changing work practices as a result of technological advances, have spurred increases in injury rates to workers, specifically those associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In turn, the rise in MSD-related conditions has caused costs for workers’ comp and treatment to spike, which has placed a significant burden on the United States economy and the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Whether you consider the MSD issue from a wide perspective or focus on the day-in, day-out operations of a single organization, the changing nature of the workforce is exerting a powerful effect on bottom lines. On a national scale, the numbers are downright staggering: treatments and indirect costs associated with MSDs in 2015 reached $874 billion, or a 5.7% share of the US GDP. That’s not just a drain on the national economy—it’s also a scary omen for employers, who face an aging workforce and pressures from external factors such as the opioid crisis, which experts argue is linked closely with workplace injuries and long-term chronic pain. It’s also news of concern for workers everywhere, as it indicates that their employers appear to be in catch-up mode to stay current with the aging workforce, opioid crisis, and other technology changes that could impact employee safety.
What’s Driving the MSD Spike?
As with any large-scale evaluation of economic trends, nailing down a single cause for the rise in MSDs and their associated costs is virtually impossible. However, shifts in workforce demographics have brought an array of new issues to the forefront. The first and most obvious factor is the aging of the workforce across America—over 10,000 individuals from the Baby Boomer generation hit 65 every day, and a large percentage of that group remains active in the workforce. The percentage of workers aged 55 to 65 has risen by more than 50% in the last five years alone, leading to concern among employers that their workforces will begin to incur even greater costs from treatment and lost wages. In fact, 1 in 5 individuals in the United States will be aged 65 or older by 2040, a portion that equals the share of persons 18 or younger. And as costs of living continue to go up and attitudes toward retirement evolve, it’s likely that long-tenured workers will remain a significant portion of the workforce into the foreseeable future.
Since the risk of MSD-related injury and chronic pain increases with age, including severity and frequency, those expenditures continue to loom large, and companies will need to work proactively to stay ahead of the aging curve.
How MSDs Affect GDP
Research into demographic-specific MSDs and the costs associated with those injuries reveals a set of striking numbers that illustrate the nuance of the rising MSD problem. In 2012, 25.5 million workers missed an average of 11.4 work days due to back or neck pain, for a total of over 290 million lost workdays nationwide. Lost productivity itself is a huge driver of costs for organizations regardless of industry, and other factors more common to older workers such as fatigue and chronic pain are also likely to interfere with an individual’s ability to work effectively.
Specific disorders under the MSD banner also illustrate the need for proactive solutions to workplace safety as the workforce ages. Arthritis, for example, is common among older workers and contributes to estimated annual costs of up to $580.9 billion as of 2011, an increase of 113% over the ten years prior. Likewise, over 50% of workers aged 65 or older deal with arthritis, but over two-thirds of those who suffer from arthritis and joint pain are under the age of 65. There costs aren’t just staggering now—they’re going to keep increasing, and organizations will need to know how to prepare.
And the costs aren’t just hurting employers. The workers themselves suffer as a result of the prevalence of MSDs in the workforce, with wage losses growing as injuries become more common. Workers who experienced MSDs on average earned $1,490 less per year as of 2014 than workers without MSDs, a number that has risen considerably even since 1998. These losses hinder wage growth on a national scale and put added pressure on the finances of everyday American workers.
It remains to be seen whether organizations will act in time to face the rising tide of MSDs as the workforce ages, but tools are available now that can help employers address common safety hazards and improve the overall wellness of their workers. Looking at employees more holistically though a focus on the body, behavior, and environment related to employees helps to address multiple issues that affect MSDs. Technology, including artificial intelligence, has aided in the shift toward safer workplaces by isolating risk factors and replacing outdated equipment with new devices that lessen the incidence of overexertion, which is especially dangerous for older workers. The rise of ergonomics as a foundational tool of workplace safety has also created new ways for employers to protect their workers from injury, integrating a better understanding of the worker’s unique physical needs into workstation and task design. Ultimately, nothing will stop the aging of the workforce, and older workers will continue to be essential contributors to the nation’s economic growth. It’s up to employers to make sure those workers can thrive.