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

Aug. 31, 2009
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.

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.