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Blue-collar Workers Say Physical Demands are Rising – Center for Retirement Research

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For obvious reasons, people who do physically demanding work are prone to injuring themselves on the job and are more likely than office workers to apply for federal disability benefits.

But is technology changing this relationship?

We know technology has caused a decline in manual labor, and the blue-collar jobs that remain are also easier to perform when machinery and computers are doing more of the heavy lifting workers used to do – think warehouse robots that alleviate the need to lift and carry heavy boxes.

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But new research based on a survey of couples between ages 51 and 61 – a population that is particularly vulnerable to illness and musculoskeletal disabilities – finds no evidence they feel the physical demands on them are lessening. If anything, they said, the requirements for motions like stooping, lifting, or crouching have increased somewhat since the early 1990s.

Their perceptions conflict with the other studies showing an easing in the demands on blue-collar workers. But those studies are not based on what older people are saying about their jobs but on analyses of an occupational database that rates the intensity of the specific tasks required in each job. One example is how many pounds a warehouse worker must lift and how often that is required.

A second finding in the new research is more in sync with what one might expect from the advent of computers and robots in the workplace. To do their jobs, older workers say they increasingly need good eyesight and people skills and must be able to concentrate on intellectual tasks. An increased demand for these types of skills has not caused more older workers to apply for federal disability benefits.

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More difficult to explain is why workers say their physical job demands are not easing up at a time applications for disability benefits nationwide have been dropping. It is plausible, the researchers said, that objective job demands – as measured by the occupational database – have been going down but that workers do not agree with this assessment.

But are the data or the workers more accurately portraying the changes taking place in the workplace? Or are workers lowering their assessments for what constitutes heavy lifting?  

To reconcile their perceptions with the data, the researchers said, “a better understanding of objective and subjective determinants is an important area for future research.”

To read this study by Charles Brown, John Bound, and Chichun Fang, see “Job Demands and Social Security Disability Insurance Applications.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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