ASSE: Making Your Workplace Friendly to the Aging Worker

On the surface, the news doesnt look good: Workers in their 40s, 50s and 60s are weaker, slower and more physically fragile than their younger counterparts. And their numbers are skyrocketing.

Between 1998 and 2008, the number of civilian workers age 55 and over will nearly double, while the number of 25- to 54-year-old workers will increase by only 5.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Every day, 10,000 baby boomers turn 55, Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, Conn.-based workplace research firm, told attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in New Orleans on June 13. And there are roughly 1 million people in the U.S. civilian, non-institutional work force age 75 and older, Tulgan says.

"We have more aging workers than we have ever had," explains Christy Franklyn, president of League City, Texas-based RRS Engineering LLC. The question is: "Can our systems, plants and facilities accommodate these aging workers?"

It's a pertinent question, since older workers face a number of physical, sensory and mental impediments to performing work tasks that often come easily to younger workers.

As we age, we get shorter and heavier, according to Franklyn, who led a seminar titled "Ergonomic Solutions for the Aging Worker in the Process Industries." Between the ages of 20 and 60 we shrink about 2 percent, while we add about 20 percent of our body weight in our older years, Franklyn notes.

Meanwhile, muscle strength decreases in our older years. Franklyn points to one study that shows a sharp drop-off in trunk extension capabilities after 50 and a steady decline in handgrip strength as we age.

Maximum aerobic power peaks around the age of 20 and gradually falls off with age. By age 65, the mean maximum aerobic power -- the level at which oxygen uptake levels off - is about 70 percent of what it was at age 25.

"This limits our ability to sustain physical movement or momentum for an extended period of time," Franklyn points out.

Yet, despite a laundry list of increased risks and disadvantages - from an increased risk of heat stress to a decreased tolerance to work schedule changes -- older workers are not very likely to take it easy on the job, Franklyn says.

"In a mixed population, older workers will try to keep up with the younger workers," Franklyn explains. "Most of us are baby boomers. We're pretty aggressive. We're going to compete and try to keep up. And that's when injuries happen."

Even though older workers face additional obstacles to performing their job, they often bring a wealth of experience and knowledge and an excellent work ethic to the plant floor -- making them a valuable part of the work force. That's why Franklyn says it's important that employers make accommodations to offset the potentially dangerous impact of their declining physical, sensory and mental functioning. Her seminar offered examples of how equipment, facilities and work processes can be improved to account for the limitations of the aging worker and to take advantage of their capabilities.

To address common situations in processing operations that present physical difficulties for aging workers, she recommends:

  • Locating valves in optimum positions for turning;
  • Providing mechanical assists whenever heavy items have to be handled;
  • Orienting heavy valves horizontally so they can be lifted by a crane;
  • Orienting heavy blinds vertically so they can be lifted by a crane;
  • Ensuring that there is enough room between pumps and exchangers to permit lifting equipment to be brought in;
  • Installing devices, such as scissor lifts and tilt tables, so items are oriented at safe lifting heights; and
  • Evaluating physically stressful jobs to ensure that they do not require operators to work beyond their physical or physiological capabilities.

Walter Bresnahan, who is a process operator with Tesoro Petroleum of Salt Lake City, says his company recently implemented one of these suggestions at Tesoro's plant, which employs about 150 people. Two older workers had suffered back and shoulder injuries turning a valve that was positioned at an awkward angle -- forcing workers to lean over a hand rail and bend over at a 90-degree angle, Bresnahan says.

By having a machinist raise the valve handle about 3 feet -- requiring workers to bend at "mid-stomach level" -- the problem has been solved, Bresnahan says.

"The machinist was able to do it in about 2 days," he explains. "It was real simple."

Other challenges aging workers must deal with are diminished hearing and vision, Franklyn says. For example, it has been estimated that there is a 50-percent reduction in retinal illumination at age 50 compared to age 20. Consequently, older workers need more light to produce brighter objects to see as well as younger workers.

For the aging worker, Franklyn recommends that all plants should be designed with accommodations for hearing and vision. For example, illumination should be adequate for every visual task, glare should be eliminated from every visual task and all signs and labels should have character heights (H) that satisfy the following equation: H=D/150.

Workers, for the most part, retain their mental faculties in their older years, Franklyn says. But a small percentage of workers could experience reductions in mental capabilities at 55 or 60, resulting in memory deficits, slower decision-making and difficulty with multi-tasking, she explains.

Consequently, Frankly recommends that:

  • Procedures are short, active and clearly written;
  • Functional grouping is used to separate equipment associated with similar functions into separate groups;
  • Employers make an effort to minimize distractions in older workers' tasks; and
  • Employers do not design tasks that require the recall of information from long-term memory, among other suggestions.
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