Research in the US on the social determinants of reduced physical functioning at older ages has typically not considered physical work conditions as contributors to disparities. We briefly describe a model of occupational stratification and segregation, review and synthesize the occupational health literature, and outline the physiological pathways through which physical work exposures may be tied to long-term declines in physical functioning. The literature suggests that posture, force, vibration, and repetition are the primary occupational risk factors implicated in the development of musculoskeletal disorders, through either acute injuries or longer-term wear and tear. Personal risk factors and environmental and structural work characteristics can modify this association. In the long-term, these musculoskeletal disorders can become chronic and ultimately lead to functional limitations and disabilities that interfere with one's quality of life and ability to remain independent. We then use data on occupational characteristics from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) linked to the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) to examine disparities among sociodemographic groups in exposure to these risk factors. Occupations with high levels of these physical demands are not limited to those traditionally thought of as manual or blue-collar jobs and include many positions in the service sector. We document a steep education gradient with less educated workers experiencing far greater physical demands at work than more educated workers. There are pronounced racial and ethnic differences in these exposures with Hispanic, Black, and Native American workers experiencing higher risks than White and Asian workers. Occupations with high exposures to these physical risk factors provide lower compensation and are less likely to provide employer-sponsored health insurance, making it more difficult for workers to address injuries or conditions that arise from their jobs. In sum, we argue that physical work exposures are likely an important pathway through which disparities in physical functioning arise.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Health(social science)
- Health Policy
- Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
- Musculoskeletal disorders
- Physical functioning
- Working conditions