Safety for an Aging Workforce
Today’s workforce is made up of a very diverse group of people. The groups currently participating in the workforce consist of: The Veterans, born 1922-1943; Baby Boomers, born 1943-1960; Generation X, born 1960-1980; and Generation Nexters, born 1980-2000.1
Currently, 13 percent of the workforce is 55 or older. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the percentage of workers 55 and older will increase to 17 percent in 2010. BLS also states that older workers’ “share of serious injuries is likely to increase even though their risk of injury is relatively low”.2 Older workers pose an increased risk for fatal work injuries; require more time to return to work following an injury or illness; and are less likely to receive training as their jobs change.3
With many employees staying in the workforce past retirement age, there is growing concern for aging worker safety. There are many challenges that face this group of people that, if not appropriately addressed, could lead to serious, long-term injury in the workplace with little or no hope of recovery to a normal life.
Resistance to Change
One of the challenges in today’s workforce is employees who are accustomed to performing a task a specific way. Changing that task to improve the employee’s safety can prove to be challenging if the worker is resistant to the change. Many call this being “set in your ways.” These employees must be encouraged to embrace the change with the understanding that it is in their best interest to promote a safer work environment. By contrast, however, there is a current idea that employees are striving to break that stereotype and are working hard to improve performance, reliability, and to prove employee loyalty to the employer.
The next challenge is one that affects workers in every group…unhealthy lifestyles. This includes smoking, alcohol consumption, poor food choices, inconsistent medical visits, and lack of exercise. These activities may affect the worker’s ability to perform his/her job functions from day to day, depending on job requirements. Studies show that many of these habits will affect a person’s life span in general. For employees desiring to stay in the workforce for any length of time, a close evaluation of lifestyles must be conducted to ensure a long and healthy career.
Push Through the Pain
The next challenge may be admirable to some but unnecessary. Many aging workers do not see the need to report every injury or work-related pain. After all, “it’ll go away in the morning.” Many aging workers will not report an injury and they will continue working while in pain. These actions are often indicative of the aging employee’s fear of becoming more dependent and negative feelings the person may have about growing older. This behavior may explain some of the statistics that indicate older employees are less likely to become injured on the job.
Without treatment, the body will compensate for the pain and may eventually lead to additional physical complications. For example, muscular problems associated with a poorly balanced body may arise due to overdeveloped muscles in another area of the body. Employers must prevent this practice and encourage injured workers to seek medical assistance for job-related injuries.
As workers age, many of the tasks they used to complete easily may become increasingly difficult. Physically demanding jobs present the danger of more severe injuries in aging workers. “Falls are the leading cause of death for people 65 and older”4 according to the Centers for Disease Control. Physical activities, such as lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, standing for long periods, or performing repetitive tasks, may increase worker fatigue and lead to worker carelessness or shortcuts.
Factors that increase the aging worker’s potential for a fall include muscle weakness, balance problems, vision problems, and side effects from medicines. BLS states that older employees are less likely to become injured on the job, but when they are injured, the injuries are more severe. In addition to the severe physical injuries, fear, anxiety, and depression often take a toll on the aging employee.
What Can Be Done?
Exercise, exercise, exercise. Encouraging all employees to participate in an exercise program will potentially reduce the risk of injury they may experience while on the job. Make employees responsible for their own fitness by outlining the benefits of including exercise in everyday life. The employer may also want to include exercise and stretching as part of regular safety meetings. While employees are stretching, the instructor may want to highlight the benefits of stretching and exercising a particular body part as well as the risks of inadequate exercise and resulting injuries.
An example of this would be to have employees performing exercises to strengthen the back while identifying injuries that could result from improper lifting. Employers should rotate routines periodically to ensure that employees do not get bored and that various body parts and hazards are covered. The employer should also rotate work assignments so that the aging employee is not exposed to repetitive motion risks.
Recognizing all employees who make healthy lifestyle changes can boost the worker’s morale and often gives the employee the much-needed support to continue with the improvement. One example of recognition may be to highlight the number of days that the employee has stopped smoking.
Employers also have a responsibility to ensure that all workers are working in a safe environment. Facility maintenance should be a priority. As people age, the recovery time for injuries tends to become longer. Ensuring that the building or work environment is hazard-free is the responsibility of the employer. Regular inspections or facility audits should be conducted and a system should be developed to quickly correct identified hazards. A system should also be developed for employees to report any hazardous conditions.
Equipment in the work environment should be properly designed to prevent worker injury. Encouraging or allowing any employee, especially aging employees, to work with inadequately guarded machinery or equipment with makeshift repairs, promotes poor work practices that will result in worker injury. Equipment should be on a regular preventive maintenance schedule so there is a greater chance of identifying a possible problem before it contributes to an accident. Also, provide and enforce the use of safety policies and procedures, such as lockout/tagout, when employees are performing service or maintenance on equipment.
Finally, various types of assessments should be part of the work environment. Job Safety Analysis (JSA) and the ergonomic assessment are two tools agencies can use to identify possible improvements to the aging employee’s work environment. Job safety analysis examines each basic step of a job to identify potential hazards and determine the safest way to perform the job.
A job safety analysis can be conducted on virtually any job function. Ergonomic assessments are conducted to fit the work environment to the worker. Many times the worker is forced to adapt to the current work environment as his/her body changes, which may lead to injury. Ergonomic assessments should not be limited to office workstations. Like the JSA, ergonomic assessments can be beneficial to a variety of worker tasks including maintenance work on buildings or landscaping work.
Safety for the all workers is the responsibility of the employer and the employee. Many workers choose to stay in the workforce because of the benefits it offers to them socially as well as financially. Ensuring a safe work environment and implementing the suggestions above will also add physical benefits to the list.
2 U.S. Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2000
American Public Health Association www.apha.org
Home Safety Council www.homesafetycouncil.org
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov/ncipc
National Institute on Aging www.nia.nih.gov
The U.S. Administration on Aging www.aoa.gov
American Association of Retired Persons www.aarp.org
National Resource Center on Aging and Injury http://www.safeaging.org
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