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

Increased susceptibility means older workers may not have the physiological capability to avoid adverse health effects from chemical exposure. For example, older workers who develop decreased lung function, and longtime or former smokers, may no longer be able to work around chemicals that are respiratory irritants. The medications some older workers are taking may also make them more susceptible to adverse health effects from chemical exposure.

As a result, traditional general ventilation controls might not be sufficient to dilute airborne contaminant levels to low enough concentrations, because the older workers in the area are more susceptible to exposure at lower concentrations. Air monitoring will have to be capable of measuring contaminant levels at lower concentrations than in the past. The capability to monitor airborne contaminants at lower detection limits is constantly being improved. To go along with that, OSHA-permissible exposure limits might not be low enough to adequately protect the expanding older work force, and will have to be re-evaluated.

Employers should also be aware that some job positions might no longer be appropriate for older workers. For example, while decreased vision is natural to the aging process, it may be an impediment for a person performing quality control, so that individual might need to move to another job. Hearing also becomes less acute as we get older. Employers may have to place older workers in lower noise areas, administer more frequent hearing tests, and give training on avoiding noise both at work and at home. In addition, older workers are more susceptible to skin-related diseases and may need to be moved to an area away from areas where potential skin irritants are handled and used.

Finally, employers have a responsibility to ensure they have insurance programs that address the needs of an older work force.

Byrns’ perspective
The issue of respiratory function and older workers is an important one. At age 60, lung vital capacity diminishes by as much as 20 percent and by age 75, it has diminished by 40 percent. Because people lose lung capacity with age, there will be a greater need for the use of powered air-purifying respirators to create positive pressure within PPE masks.

That way, the individual’s lungs don’t have to do the work of bringing air through the filter. With aging, lungs become more rigid, so using negative pressure respirators with older workers who may have diminished lung capacity places an added burden on their lungs and may even produce a life-threatening situation.

Another age-related respiratory effect could be accumulated dose. Most occupational lung diseases like silicosis (a nonreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by overexposure to inhalation of crystalline silica dust) have dose-related effects. In other words, the higher the dose the greater the effect. So with increasing age, workers are susceptible to a double hit — lung rigidity coupled with increased exposure and accumulated dose. 

There is a similar issue with back pain. Increased age may result in increased disc degeneration. At the same time, workers in physically demanding jobs have an increased accumulative dose of strain to the musculoskeletal system. This makes it challenging to separate the effects of age on the individual from the effects of the physical strain of the job as causes of back pain. 

Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on issues pertaining to aging workers and other occupational health and safety topics, or to access a list of other safety and industrial hygiene consultants who specialize in these issues, visit the American Industrial Hygiene Assn. web site at

Sheree Gibson is a participatory ergonomist and certified professional ergonomist, is president of Ergonomics Applications. Robert McKinley, a certified industrial hygienist, is manager of Industrial Hygiene Services at Terracon Consultants Inc. in Naperville, IL. George Byrns, a certified industrial hygienist, earned a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in public health. He is associate professor of Environmental Health at Southern Illinois State.

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