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Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers
compensation programs, there is often little oversight by public agencies of attempts to accommodate injured workers.
Transfers to different jobs are an alternative mechanism for guaranteeing that a worker with physical limitations can remain at work. Both the health and safety laws and workers’ compensation programs provide legal bases for reassignment. OSHA/MSHA rules, as well as ADA guidelines, suggest that this is an appropriate way to provide safe work for aging workers. For example, under the Mine Safety and Health Act, coal workers with evidence of developing pneumoconiosis have a permanent right to transfer from dusty jobs. The implementation of this section has been fraught with difficulty, but it is a process that has been successfully used by older coal miners to transfer from heavy jobs with dust exposure to lighter jobs with less dust (Spieler, 1989; 30 U.S.C. §843[b]; 30 C.F.R. §90). OSHA rules at this point only provide for transfers for workers suffering from respiratory disease due to cotton dust exposure (29 C.F.R. §1910.1043) and for temporary transfer for individuals with acute health problems (e.g., 29 C.F.R. §1910.1025 [lead]; 29 C.F.R. §1910.1028 [benzene]). Temporary transfers are of little benefit to aging workers with progressive or chronic conditions.
Workers’ compensation programs do not specifically mandate job transfers. Many programs are, however, designed to encourage employers to provide light duty assignments to injured workers. To the extent that this encourages appropriate return to work and job reassignment, this may be of considerable value to older workers.
Regarding leaves of absence, older workers may need to leave work for a period of time or may need particular job accommodations at work in order to remain in the active workforce and to continue to work safely at their jobs.
In addition to the ADA’s allowance for leave as a reasonable accommodation, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. §§2601-2654, provides that employees who meet minimum work duration requirements and whose employers employ more than 50 employees are entitled to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave in each calendar year; the leave can be continuous or intermittent. Leave is granted if the employee needs to care for a family member with a serious health condition or if the employee needs time off because of his or her own serious health condition. The employer must guarantee reinstatement to the prior job at the end of the leave, unless the employee is a high-level manager. Rabinowitz (2002) provides a full description of the FMLA in the context of occupational safety and health concerns. In addition, workers with job-related injuries may be entitled to time off from work while they are collecting workers’ compensation benefits. Not all states guarantee that an individual on workers’ compensation is entitled to return to work after the injury, however. Moreover,