Safety Matters: The Role of Aging Workers and Their Changing Health Needs

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of 55-plus workers is expected to grow by nearly 12 million

By Sheree Gibson, Robert McKinley, and George Byrns

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2006 and 2016, the number of 55-plus workers is expected to grow by nearly 12 million (3.9 percent annually) — faster than any other age group. Those 12 million workers will comprise 7.3 million aged 55-64, more than 8 million aged 65-74, and nearly 2 million aged 75-plus.
Three industrial hygienists affiliated with the American Industrial Hygiene Assn., Sheree Gibson, Robert McKinley, and George Byrns, comment on some of the characteristics of this older group of workers that employers need to consider.

Gibson’s take
There’s good news and bad news about aging workers. The good news is that older workers, for the most part, are safer than younger ones. They are not as likely to incur injuries from inattention or inexperience. The bad news is that when they are injured, they stay out longer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has statistics that show significant changes in recovery times as workers age. When you’re younger, you’re more resilient; when you’re 50, you feel it more, you’re losing muscle elasticity and bone density, and it takes longer to recover from even minor injuries.

As we age we can easily become deconditioned. We are more susceptible to back and shoulder injuries which tend to be cumulative in nature. Degenerative disc disease becomes more common.

Older workers have higher fatality rates from falling. Falls are more likely because balance and vision tend to deteriorate with age. If falls do occur, an older person is more likely to be severely injured.

Employers can help prevent falls by making sure that lighting levels (particularly near stairs or changes in elevation) are adequate for older workers and that visual distractions are not a problem. Most older workers need glasses, although not all are willing to admit it. Make sure all employees have regular vision and hearing exams and wear glasses if they need them. Provide all workers with information on medication side effects — many medications can adversely impact balance.

Heat stress can be a big issue with older workers. This is especially true if the worker has been off the job for a period of time or if there has been an especially abrupt seasonal change, or the particular personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for the job is making the heat stress worse. If these circumstances exist, older workers should ramp up slowly to their previous level of productivity. Both supervisors and the employees themselves should have a heightened awareness of the impact of heat stress and how to prevent it. Older workers should be monitored closely, especially to make sure they are taking more fluids, and depending on the level of energy they’re using, cooling vests might be in order. 

Because employers are more concerned than ever about controlling health care costs and lowered production capacity because of health-related absenteeism, they would be wise to take a more holistic approach to their work force, regardless of age. Address lifestyle and wellness concerns with your workers. Provide or pay for health screenings, diet assistance, smoking cessation, and flexibility and strength-conditioning classes.

The good ergonomic practices that allow older workers to work safely also help protect everyone. For example, good housekeeping practices and keeping cords and hoses off the floor will help everyone avoid trips and falls, not just older workers. So will painting risers on stairs a contrasting color.

Older workers are our most valuable and stable work force. They’re more likely to show up, they have a strong work ethic and they’re not risk takers and — we all know — one compensation for getting older is we get smarter.

McKinley’s view
One of the common concerns with older workers is the likelihood of developing workplace-related diseases because of increased susceptibility to workplace hazards.

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