Seasoned Employees in the Landscaping Services IndustryPosted on by
As in many other industries, the average age for workers in the landscaping services industry* has been rising, from 38.1 in 2011 to 40.9 in 2019. While knowledge and skills generally improve with age, physical abilities such as strength, reaction time, and balance may decline. Typically, the injury rate for older workers is lower than for younger workers. When older workers get injured, the injuries are more likely to be severe and expensive and lead to more lost time from the workplace.
The NIOSH Center for Workers’ Compensation Studies (CWCS) and the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (Ohio Bureau) have been researching workers’ compensation (WC) data to improve safety and health in the workplace since 2013. Researchers at NIOSH and the Ohio Bureau recently studied claims in the Ohio Bureau database from the landscaping services industry. This research was performed to determine differences in claims from workers of varying ages and to examine the circumstances leading to those claims. The results of this research were recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “The Role of Worker Age in Ohio Workers’ Compensation Claims in the Landscaping Services Industry.”
Worker Age in Landscaping
As part of this research, a team of NIOSH researchers analyzed 11,602 WC claims to the Ohio Bureau from the landscaping services industry recorded from 2005 to 2017. WC claims to the Ohio Bureau are classified as either lost-time or medical-only. The lost-time claims are those requiring eight or more days away from work (more severe claims) with medical-only claims requiring seven or fewer days away from work or medical treatment only (less severe claims). Data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey were used to determine full-time equivalent employees in census group 7770, landscaping services, by age in the state of Ohio. These data showed that the number of full-time landscaping services employees in Ohio under age 45 increased by 3% from 2005 to 2017, but the number of workers aged 45 and older increased by 140%. With the increase in older workers in the landscaping industry, specific safety and health efforts should be targeted to the risks facing this population.
Causes of Claims
The causes of WC claims are classified into one of eight broad categories known as the event or exposure. Large differences were observed among the causes of claims in different age groups. The rate of less severe claims in the category of “contact with objects and equipment” was highest for workers younger than 25 years of age, double the rate for workers aged 45 and older. In the landscaping services industry, these claims can include injuries caused by falling trees or branches; power or manual tools such as lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, and chainsaws; stepping on nails, broken glass, or wires; being struck by a vehicle not on a roadway; or running into obstructions.
The rate of more severe claims in the category of “overexertion and bodily reaction” was highest for workers aged 45-54 and was lower for workers older or younger than this age. These incidents may have occurred during loading and unloading of tools, equipment, and materials, or when pushing, pulling, lifting, or digging.
In the category of “falls, slips, trips,” the rate of more severe claims for a landscaping services worker 45 years of age or older was double that for a worker younger than age 25. In this industry, such claims included falls from trees, ladders, work vehicles, and stairs, as well as slips, trips, and falls on the same level, often due to wet conditions, slopes, ice, uneven walking surfaces, and obstructions.
Cost of Claims
The total cost of WC claims to the Ohio Bureau from the landscaping services industry from 2005 to 2017 was nearly $168 million. The more severe claims accounted for 94% of this total cost, even though only 19% of claims were more severe. The median of all claims (medical-only and lost-time) having a cost to the Ohio Bureau rose steadily with age from $522 for workers younger than age 25 to $1002 for workers 65 years of age and older.
Although landscaping services workers younger than 35 experience much higher rates of the less severe claims than older workers, the cost of their claims is relatively low. Claims from workers aged 45 to 54 years of age represent 13.1% of the total number of claims, but 25% of the total cost of claims. Workers in this age group have the highest rate of severe claims in the categories of “transportation incidents,” “contact with objects and equipment,” and “overexertion and bodily reaction.” These high rates of severe injuries could possibly account for the disproportionate share of the cost of claims of workers aged 45-50 compared to workers younger than 45 or older than 54 years of age.
This same pattern of injury rate rising and then falling with increasing age has been found for work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry and for overexertion injuries in all industries. The reason for this finding is unknown, but it may be a result of workers older than 54 gradually moving into jobs in which they are less likely to be injured, such as supervisory jobs. It may also be due to the healthy worker effect, in which less healthy workers, who may be injured more frequently, are likely to leave the industry at a younger age.
Claims for contact with objects and equipment
The free-text descriptions of the 1,542 less severe claims for “contact with objects and equipment” for workers younger than 25 years frequently mentioned one of the words “hand,” “finger,” “thumb,” or “pinky,” and/or the word, “cut.” This suggests that cuts to the hands or digits occur frequently in these claims. Inexperience with the use of landscaping power tools may lead to many injuries to these young workers.
Overexertion and bodily reaction claims
Ohio landscaping services workers in the 45- to 54-year-old age group filed 117 claims for more severe “overexertion and bodily reaction” incidents from 2005 to 2017. These claims included 32 incidents while lifting something, 20 incidents during loading or unloading activities, and 12 incidents when a misstep happened while walking. The injuries resulting from these incidents were frequently sprains or disc disorders of the back, sprains of the upper extremity, tendinitis or other joint disorders, or hernias. Loading and unloading of work vehicles and trailers was cited in our earlier study as a risk for serious injury that is frequently overlooked. Safety interventions in these areas could pay large dividends.
Slips, trips, and falls
The words “fell” or “fall,” and the word “slip,” appeared most frequently in the free text description of claims from workers aged 55 and older. Claims for “falls, slips, trips” appeared 40 times in the 100 most expensive claims for workers in this age range, compared to 24 times in the 100 most expensive claims for those aged 54 and younger. Many of the most severe “falls, slips, trips” claims occurred from incidents on stairs or on the same level. Contributing factors included wet conditions, slopes, ice, uneven working surfaces, and tripping hazards. These falls may be partially caused by decreased balance as workers age.
Preventing Injuries and Illnesses
Engineering controls are preferred to reduce risk
According to the NIOSH hierarchy of controls, where risks cannot be eliminated or a substitution made, the preferred means of controlling the risk is through engineering controls. Engineering controls to improve safety in the landscaping services industry might include boom trucks for work at elevation; liftgates for loading and unloading; well-maintained guards and interlocks on power tools and equipment; and flatter inclines and nonslip surfaces on ramps and in vehicle and trailer beds. Previous studies by NIOSH and the Ohio Bureau in a number of industries have demonstrated the effectiveness of engineering control interventions in reducing WC claim frequency and cost. Interventions that reduce the risk of falls and overexertion injuries could be especially important for workers aged 45 and older.
Administrative controls can also improve safety
Administrative controls to reduce risk in the landscaping services industry could include training, good work practices, preventive maintenance of tools and equipment, worker wellbeing programs, and workplace mentoring of young employees by older employees. Two NIOSH initiatives for worker wellbeing are Total Worker Health® and the NIOSH National Center for Productive Aging and Work. Using administrative controls recommended in these programs can help both young and inexperienced workers and older workers reduce their rates of WC claims.
Personal protective equipment is the last line of defense
Personal protective equipment (PPE) should not be the only safety intervention, but it can be effective in conjunction with the above controls for workers of all ages. All PPE recommended by the tool manufacturer should be worn when using power tools. Personal fall protection should be used when performing work at heights, and sturdy, nonslip footwear can also help to reduce falls.
Older workers represent a substantial and growing segment of the workforce and make valuable contributions to the workplace. These data can be used to help make work safer for all workers. After all, preventing occupational injuries to young workers can help ensure they become healthy older workers.
See the related blog Workers’ Compensation Data Sheds Light on Hazards in Landscaping.
Barbara M. Alexander, PhD, PE, CIH, is an Industrial Hygienist and Chemical Engineer with the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
Steven J. Wurzelbacher, PhD, is Manager of the NIOSH Center for Workers’ Compensation Studies in the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
Rachel J. Zeiler, BA, is an ORISE Fellow with the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
Steven J. Naber, PhD, is a Business Intelligence and Analytics Manager with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, Enterprise Analytics.
Harpriya Kaur, PhD, is an Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Science Integration.
James Grosch, PhD, is a Senior Research Psychologist and Co-Manager of the National Center for Productive Aging and Work in the Division of Science Integration at NIOSH.
Asha Brogan, BA, is an ORISE Fellow in the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
OSHA. Landscape and Horticultural Services. Safety and Health Topics 2020; https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/landscaping/hazards.html
OHBWC. Safety Intervention Grant. Safety & Training 2021; https://info.bwc.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/bwc/for-employers/safety-and-training/safety-grants/safety-intervention-grant.
Schulte PA, Grosch J, Scholl JC, Tamers SL. Framework for Considering Productive Aging and Work. J Occup Environ Med. 2018;60(5):440-448. 10.1097/jom.0000000000001295.
OHBWC. Better You, Better Ohio! – Health and wellness program. 2022; https://info.bwc.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/bwc/for-employers/workers-compensation-coverage/rates-and-bonuses/Health-and-wellness.
NIOSH. NIOSH Science Blog, Category: Landscaping. 2021; https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/category/landscaping/
*North American Industry Classification System -NAICS- code 56173