Diversity & Inclusion

Safety Challenges in Dealing with an Aging Workforce

With Americans living longer, they are also working longer, making older workers an invaluable part of any company. They bring wisdom, knowledge, and experience to many aspects of business. They can become mentors for younger and less experienced workers. But there are certain changes that occur to both the body and mind of every individual as they age, which can affect safety in the workplace if an employer is unaware of them and does not take steps to keep aging workers safe.

The first members of the “baby boomer” generation have entered their sixth decade — the eldest in a generation that comprises the most significant portion of the U.S. labor force today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost a quarter of all 65- to 74-year-olds are active in the workforce, representing the highest percentage of workers in this age group since 1970. As older adults return to work after re-tirement, whether due to financial need or the desire to continue working, health and safety professionals must address this population’s needs.

Safety Concerns

Some changes that occur as workers age can include loss of former strength and muscular flexibility, decreased range of motion, loss of sense of balance, deterioration of vision, and slower reaction times. All these changes can have an impact on safety in the workplace.

Common on-the-job injuries experienced by the older working population often are caused by falls, which can be attributed to poor balance, slowed reaction time, visual deficits, lack of concentration, or complacency. Sprain or strain injuries are also common and may be brought on by loss of strength, endurance, or flexibility. Additionally, older workers may be more sensitive to overexertion, heat, cold, lighting, noise, and ergonomic issues.

It is the smart administrator, engineer, safety professional, or health provider who understands the value of the veteran employee as well as the problems and risks facing employees when they grow older. Employers want the brainpower and the experience and knowledge, but not the lost work-time days, workers’ compensation claims, or any of the negatives associated with injuries/illnesses.

Strength & Flexibility

As muscles lose mass they also lose strength, making them respond more slowly and tire more quickly. Loss of strength happens due to decreased muscle mass and the diminished force capabilities of our muscles. They take longer to respond to an action and fatigue faster as we age. To ensure safety in the workplace after the loss of strength and muscular flexibility, older workers should practice certain safety measures. Some tips to keep in mind are:

  • Avoid keeping the muscles in a fixed posture or performing only one kind of movement.
  • Avoid twisting the torso while lifting, as it leads to back injuries.
  • Keep work activity in the “neutral” zone, the area from the thighs to the shoulders.
  • Step up close to the object to be lifted and keep the object close to the body.
  • Avoid prolonged bending, particularly below knee level.
  • Choose a clear path to the object’s destination.
  • Lift objects from waist level.
  • Use a mechanical aid or get help from coworkers if the object is too heavy.
  • Avoid prolonged standing and prolonged sitting.
  • If prolonged standing is necessary, provide anti-fatigue mats.
  • Avoid extreme demands on the joints.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes every day to keep fit and flexible. Start with 10-minute increments.

Balance

Older workers may find they have a problem with balance. Inner ear problems and a tendency to deafness in one ear can also lead to problems with balance. This may be the reason why older people experience more falls and broken bones. Slips and falls account for 14 to 40 percent of non-fatal occupational injuries. Injuries involving falls are more common to older workers. Older workers can take certain safety measures to ensure safety in the workplace when there may be balance loss.

Employers can apply safety practices in the workplace to prevent falls and other significant injuries to older workers and other employees. Some of these safety practices are:

  • Maintain exterior walkways in good condition. Check for uneven surfaces, cracks, accumulation of debris, and weather hazards due to rain, snow, or ice.
  • Match work with abilities. Some older workers are at risk if required to use ladders or scaffolds.
  • Practice good housekeeping and keep walkways clear and free of obstructions.
  • Clean up spills immediately and keep floors and carpets in good repair.
  • Use absorbent materials to reduce slipping.
  • Avoid equipment that obstructs vision, especially peripheral vision.
  • Use high contrast colors on risers and treads on stairs.
  • Use bright lighting and provide handrails.
  • Encourage slip resistant low-heeled shoes on the job.
  • Minimize background noises to accommodate hearing problems.

Circulatory

Circulatory problems affect people as they age, causing them to feel cold and heat more acutely. In the summertime, employers are aware that outside workers need more water and rest breaks to cope with heat stress. These precautions especially apply to the older worker, since age, weight, and medications often interfere with body functions that naturally cool the body.

In the winter, employers should protect workers against low temperatures, dampness, cold water, and wind conditions. Hazard abatement should be an employer’s first choice in worker protection, followed by protective equipment for all workers, not simply the older workers.

Respiratory

Respiratory function declines from 15 to 25 percent from age 20 to age 65. Oxygen uptake sharply declines after the age of 50, making intense physical activity more difficult for older workers. Older workers should practice safety when performing their duties and other physical activity in the workplace.

Older workers should avoid strenuous work in hot/humid or cold environments and should reduce exposure to temperature extremes. In addition, older employees should take precautions to avoid dehydration in hot environments and should drink plenty of non-caffeinated/non-alcoholic beverages. The employee should avoid physically demanding work if the worker is not conditioned for such work. The older worker should also take frequent breaks and allow for self-paced work rather than machine-paced work, when possible.

Vision

Vision begins to deteriorate for many people in their 40s, sometimes requiring prescription glasses to correct various eye problems. Workers may need prescription safety glasses in their jobs. Employers can protect older workers with vision problems by making some adjustments in the workplace. These may include:

  • Improve contrast between objects by increasing the candlepower of the existing lighting.
  • Install brighter lighting in the workplace.
  • Install glare screens on computers to prevent eyestrain and headaches.
  • Avoid shades of blue, blue on green, or blue on black in the work environment — older workers have difficulty in distinguishing between these colors.
  • Make signs clear, easily seen, and easy to read and follow.
  • Eliminate the need for older workers to constantly move between bright areas and shady or dim areas.
  • Reduce glare by using shades, awnings, diffuse light sources, adjustable lighting, and indirect lighting.
  • Encourage workers to get their eyes checked regularly.

Mental

Certain mental processes do tend to decline with aging. Studies have shown that the greatest mental abilities occur in the 30s and 40s and then start to decline in the late 50s and early 60s, but only to a small extent. Not until after the early 80s do 30 to 40 percent of people experience a significant decline in their mental capacity.

Mental processing and reaction time does slow with age and older people will take longer to process mental tasks than their younger coworkers. Given enough time, older workers can perform mental tasks just as well as their younger counterparts. It is important to note that changes in physical condition and mental ability do not happen to everyone as they age. There is a wide variety in ability among aging individuals and since functional decline is small it should not interfere with normal day-to-day tasks. Older workers may take longer to learn new tasks, but they are still capable of learning new things.

Workers need to continue to exercise all their faculties, both mental and physical, if they wish to avoid a decline in their abilities. To keep the mind active and prevent further mental decline, older workers can learn a new language, solve crossword puzzles, and play games that require thought and strategy. There are practices older workers can do to help their mental processes during their daily duties, including compiling to-do lists, making notes on the job, keeping a calendar to track events and appointments, and leaving phone messages for oneself.

Bottom Line

Employers and health and safety professionals may need to make accommodations for their older workers to keep them safe. Employers need to be attentive to older workers’ conditions and should look for signs of physical, emotional, or psychological stress. Older workers should not be encouraged to stay at work if they feel tired or ill. Employers also should encourage input from coworkers and managers who might recognize problems, without unfairly punishing older workers. If coworkers call attention to an older employee’s difficulties, and then see that employee fired, they will be less likely to address similar safety concerns in the future.

Although employers may need to be more proactive with older workers, the effort is worthwhile for this experienced, hardworking population. You’re going to need older workers, so take care of them by keeping them healthy, well, and happily employed.