A record number of U.S. workers are tapping into their retirement accounts to make it through the economic downturn, Fidelity Investments found in a survey released Friday.

Among the 11 million workers whose 401(k) plans are run by Fidelity, 11% took out a loan from their plan during the 12 months ended June 30, the company said, up from 9% at the same point a year earlier.

By the end of the second quarter, plan participants with loans outstanding against their 401(k) accounts had reached 22% versus 20% a year earlier.

Hardship withdrawals were also on the rise, although in absolute terms remain quite low.

During the quarter, 2.2 percent of Fidelity's active 401(k) participants took a hardship withdrawal, up from 2 percent a year earlier, and another peak, Fidelity said. Often those withdrawals were used to prevent foreclosure on a home or pay college tuition.

"People have been looking to their 401(k) plans as a source of relief to help them meet financial hardships," said Beth McHugh, a Fidelity vice president who oversees the area. "For many individuals that is their primary savings vehicle."

Loans and withdrawals were highest among workers between 35 to 55 years old, Fidelity found, peak earnings years.

Fidelity, the Boston mutual fund giant, is also the country's largest administrator of retirement savings plans like 401(k)s, making its quarterly survey a closely watched barometer of saver behavior.

As more companies end traditional "defined benefit" plans like pensions, workers are relying more on "defined contribution" plans like 401(k)s to carry them through retirement.

To encourage savings, tax codes and other rules discourage early withdrawals. Distributions from 401(k) plans are taxed as ordinary income, and withdrawals by individuals younger than aged 59 1/2 may be subject to an early withdrawal penalty.

Balances in 401(k) plans, which tend to be held in mutual funds dominated by U.S. equities, slipped in the second quarter as major stock indexes tumbled more than 10%.

The average 401(k) balance as of June 30 was $61,800, up 15% from a year ago but down 7.6% from $66,900 as of March 31.

Fidelity found signs of continued thrift in the workforce. The average percentage of salary saved in a 401(k) held steady at 8%, similar to the rate in the first quarter, while 32% saved 10% or more of their pay.

But the rising rates of loans and withdrawals show more people have turned to their savings to cover basic expenses, McHugh said.

She added that second-quarter rates tend to be higher as parents look for ways to cover college tuition.

Nevin Adams, editor at plansponsor.com, a site for the retirement-planning industry, said the results were somewhat surprising since other plan providers had reported falling rates of loans and withdrawals recently.

But since Fidelity serves many smaller businesses and more varied geographies than do competitors, it may have come across a trend sooner than others, Adams said.

"Unemployment benefits have been running out for people, and it's possible they're seeing a double-dip of withdrawals from people trying to make ends meet," he said.

Plansponsor.com estimates that of the $2.7 trillion that corporate employees keep in 401(k) plans, Fidelity serves as "recordkeeper" for the largest amount of assets, $838 billion.

TIAA-CREF of New York was in second place with $320 billion, followed by ING Group with $254 billion and Hewitt Associates Inc with $249 billion.