WCRI Study Quantifies Impact of Age, Education, Injury and Employment Status on Return-to-Work Outcomes

June 13, 2005

Workers over the age of 55 are 12 to 35 percent less likely to return to work when compared to workers between the ages of 25 and 39 and are out of work 62 to 276 percent longer, according to a new study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI).

Over the next decade, as the “baby boom” generation continues to age, the number of workers age 55 and older is projected to grow by 49 percent. This is four times the growth rate projected for the overall U.S. labor force and will translate to 11 million more workers over the age of 55 by 2012.

The study, Return-To-Work Outcomes of Injured Workers: Evidence from California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas, also reported that a worker’s education level was a key factor in the likelihood of return to work and the duration of the out of work spell. Workers with a high school education returned to work 10 to 60 weeks faster than those with less education.

A lack of education especially influenced the length of time off work for workers with only a grade school education, WCRI reported. These workers were out of work 2 to 4.5 times longer than high school graduates.

The report noted that in all four of the states studied, the initial severity of the worker’s injury and the effectiveness of their recovery were the most consistent predictors of return to work outcomes.

Workers reporting more severe injuries were 1 to 8 percent less likely to return to work at all and were out of work 28 to 50 percent longer, compared to workers with injuries of average initial severity.

Workers reporting less effective recoveries were also 4 to 16 percent less likely to return to work and were out of work as much as 50 percent longer than workers reporting recoveries that are more typical.

“Quantifying the impact of the aging ‘baby boom’ generation, employees’ educational level, and injury severity may help policymakers, employers, the medical community, and others develop new strategies that promote a more effective and timely return to work,” said Dr. Richard Victor, executive director of the Cambridge-based WCRI.

Dr. Victor also noted that policies or interventions that are effective in reducing injury severity or improving recovery could subsequently improve return to work outcomes.

Other notable factors having a significant impact on return to work outcomes included working part-time at the time of injury, reporting less trusting relationships with supervisors and suffering from a back injury or any fracture.

WCRI’s study included data from approximately 750 injured workers in each of four states: California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Texas. The data is based on workers with more than seven days of lost time who reported having a substantial return to work during the 3.5 years after their injury or who reported having no substantial return to work during this time for reasons mainly due to their injury.

Every year approximately five million Americans experience a work-related injury or illness. Of these, about 1.4 million workers lose time away from work. Workers’ compensation medical and cash benefits paid to injured workers in 2002 totaled $53.4 billion, an increase of 7.4 percent from $49.8 billion in 2001.

Of the benefits paid to injured workers in 2002, around 55 percent or some $29.1 billion, compensated workers for income lost during a period in which the worker was unable to work because of an injury.

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