NSC: Special Safety Concerns for an Aging Workforce

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 retirement, whether due to financial need or the desire to continue working, health and safety professionals must address this population’s needs.

Dr. Gregory Petty, professor of health and safety programs at the University of Tennessee, discussed the aging workforce’s special safety concerns at the National Safety Council’s (NSC) 2007 Congress and Expo in Chicago this week. He explained the phenomenon of so many older employees returning to the workforce after retirement can be attributed to better health, insufficient retirement funds or the desire to gain new experiences.

“Though many older people will need to work, at least part time, many others will want to,” Petty said. “[Some] older workers want the potential for new adventures or experiences.”

Petty said that while many business and industry leaders are overlooking the increasingly older workforce, he predicted the expectations of this population’s work ability will change “with the realization that ‘old’ does not have to mean tired, sick, cautious or quiet.”

“There are reasons why you should care about the value of these older workers,” Petty said.

He explained the older working population generally is highly educated, experienced and reliable. These employees typically have held established careers, have the wisdom of maturity and often have lower injury rates. Petty acknowledged that the benefits of hiring older employees, however, are accompanied by risks.

“You have a fall when you’re 20, you have a bruise,” he said. “You have a fall when you’re 50, 60 or 70, you have a broken hip.”

Older worker face various challenges: the onset of diseases, reduced blood flow, memory problems, medication side effects and the loss of strength, stamina and flexibility. Older workers also may find it more difficult to learn new skills. Their reaction times slow down, their balance is affected and their vision and hearing quality decrease.

“Your body just does not cooperate. On the job, that can be a serious problem,” Petty said.

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 also are 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.

“If you’re an older worker, you need to find a way to work smarter,” Petty said. He stressed that older workers should be aware of their current functioning ability. Forgetting glasses or hearing aides, for example, could prove dangerous for an older worker. “You have to know your limitations,” he warned.

Accommodating the Aging Population

Employers and health and safety professionals may need to make accommodations for their older workers to keep them safe. Petty suggested wellness programs, job analyses and ergonomic evaluations to protect the aging workforce. He added that restructured job duties and work hours might also be beneficial to this population. Providing behavior-based feedback and giving more positive than negative consequences are also beneficial for the older workforce.

“For employers intent on recapturing talents of older workers, more interesting, varied jobs will make a difference,” Petty said.

Considering that many older workers are at retirement age, it makes sense that they desire enough time to explore leisure activities. Flexible schedules, part-time options, seasonal activities and extra weeks of vacation will be attractive to this demographic, especially for employees who primarily continue working out of a desire to stay busy. These options also will minimize pressure and stress, help workers recuperate and provide them with more control over their employment.

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 the 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.

“You’re going to have to have a total safety culture in your environment to get workers to speak up,” Petty explained.

He acknowledged that employers may need to be more proactive with these older workers, but the effort is worthwhile for this experienced, hardworking population. He cited the possibility that there may not be enough workers to fill the baby boomer generation’s jobs in the future.

“You’re going to need the older worker,” he said. “Take care of that older group. Keep them healthy, well and happily employed.”

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