Don't Lose Sight of the Older Work Force

Just like a fine bottle of Bordeaux, people only get better with age, right?

While it often is true that age brings wisdom, experience and maturity, age also brings many challenges that concern the employers of workers who are creeping toward retirement age.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), baby boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — make up about one-third of the U.S. work force, the highest number of workers in this age group since 1970. And they aren't planning to retire to Florida anytime soon: AARP reported that 79 percent of baby boomers don't plan to stop working at age 65.

Older adults continue to work beyond retirement age for various reasons, and health and safety professionals are examining some of the challenges facing this at-risk worker population.

Vision problems are one of the first challenges many aging workers face — usually beginning in their 40's. Pupils may react more slowly to changes in light, and the eye becomes more sensitive to glare and less adaptable in the dark. Increased nearsightedness might make it more difficult to focus and read smaller print, depth perception may decrease and visual field and peripheral vision may become more limited. Finally, distinguishing between pastel colors, especially blues and greens, may become more difficult.

Issues with visual acuity can pose safety risks for older workers as well as their colleagues. However, an increasing number of companies today are more open to retaining and hiring older workers. Employers realize that older workers, while presenting some physical challenges, offer knowledge and skills that take years for fresh, young employees to learn. And some employers are going the extra mile in making accommodations for older workers so they can continue to work in a safe manner.

Benefits of Having an Older Work Force

Brackenridge, Pa.-based ATI Allegheny Ludlam Stainless Steel Corp., which makes stainless steel and other metallurgical products, recognizes the value of older employees. Mike Swann, ATI's repair technician and member of the company's corporate safety committee, says that at ATI's Clarence Center, N.Y., facility, two-thirds of the workers there are within 10 years of retirement. According to Swann, ATI places a high value on its older work force because as the company creates new products, older and more experienced workers give the company an edge over its competitors by providing input on what will or won't work.

In addition, many older workers have valuable experience dealing with hazards unique to workplaces such as ATI — extremely hot metal, heavy pieces of equipment and even heavier products (ATI's smallest product weighs 8,000 pounds). Older workers mentor new employees on how to handle the materials properly and safely.

“Their experience is so invaluable,” Swann said. “In this industry, it is very easy for people to get careless, have things go wrong and people get hurt. Our older workers can teach our younger ones how to properly handle the stuff so they can keep themselves safe and keep the equipment operating efficiently.”

For this reason, ATI caters to the needs of older workers' lagging eyesight. Swann says ATI provides prescription safety glasses to employees. Some workers are required to wear full-face respirators, and those who wear bifocals are given respirators with prescription lens inserts.

“The company really goes the extra mile to make sure that we stay safe, not just from the normal job hazards, but also from the hazards of some folks not being able to see properly,” Swann says.

In addition, ATI has incorporated bright colors and large images when sending in-house work emails and uses larger fonts in manuals and signs.

“The company has made it easier on these guys so they don't have to strain their eyes as much,” Swann says.

Avoiding the Issue

Workers who experience symptoms of vision degradation mght not always admit it. According to Sheree Gibson, president of the Duncan, S.C.-based Ergonomics Applications, older workers sometimes delay getting their eyes tested, knowing that test results may indicate a need for prescription glasses. Employers should take the initiative in offering on-site eye testing for all workers, regardless of age, says Gibson, because “employers should know if their workers can see or not.” She also recommends that during safety training, employers speak about the hazards of not treating poor eyesight, as it can create a hazardous work environment for the workers and their fellow employees.

“This is especially true if they are part of a fleet of truck drivers, for instance,” Gibson says, noting that a mix of vision degradation and slow reaction time contributes to a high percentage of motor vehicle accidents among older workers. “Even if they aren't a truck driver, they could be out driving a company car while on business or could even be out on a forklift.”

It could even cause a more catastrophic situation, according to Robert McKinley, CIH, manager of industrial hygiene services at Terracon Consultants Inc., in Naperville, Ill. If part of the older worker's job is to manage chemicals, and if he or she can't read the labels correctly, the wrong chemical may be used.

“The danger of mixing of incompatible chemicals could potentially cause a fire or explosion, which could kill a significant number of people,” McKinley says.

In addition to motor vehicle accidents, Gibson states that falls, according to BLS figures, are the leading cause of injury and fatality for older working adults. She claims that vision degradation plays a role and is especially prevalent among workers who wear bifocals. Although bifocals can be useful for reading and driving, they can be hindrance when workers have to go down a flight of stairs, for example. She asserts that a large of percentage of falls among older workers happen on stairwells.

“Talk to anybody who is wearing bifocals for the first time and they will tell you that when they learn to approach steps, they are feeling their way down,” Gibson says. “We are used to being able to look at stairs, but because they are too far away from focus, they have to have their chin embedded onto their chest to get a good view.”

Proactive Measures

Gibson recommends companies take proactive measures to accommodate older workers. In stairwells, for instance, she suggests employers check to see if more lighting is needed and provide a better distinction between the edge of the step and the rest of the stair to help minimize the incidence of falls. One easy and cost-effective method, she says, is to paint the top of the stairs one color and the risers of the stairs another color to distinguish where the edge of the stairs are located.

“It's a really simple thing to do and it can prevent their workers a lot of frustration and pain,” she emphasizes.

In the manufacturing industry, additional tools can be added to enhance productivity. For instance, McKinley notes that if a person's job is to take a small screw and put it into a little hole, he can be given a tool that directs him to where the piece should go.

“In small-component assembly work and in other jobs where eyesight is critical, such as manufacturing and quality control inspection process, employers should be aware if their workers are able to function in such a capacity,” McKinley says.

In these types of industries, safety glasses almost always are required. If workers have trouble seeing what's in front of them, it's recommended they get prescription safety glasses. However, unlike ATI Industries — which Swann says doesn't think twice about providing these types of glasses — some companies may shy away from paying the $150 price tag for each pair.

Companies don't have to go bankrupt to accommodate their older work force, says Roland Westerdal, president of the Bethel, Conn.-based safety product manufacturer Elvex Corp., who started seeing an influx of older workers about 4 years ago. Noticing that most of these individuals will require reading glasses, and many will need reading glasses in combination with protective safety glasses, the company started engineering ready-made bifocal lenses, similar in concept to the inexpensive reading glasses available on a drug store rack.

These safety glasses could be a major cost saver, Westerdal says. He estimates the cost of getting doctor-prescribed bifocal safety glasses at $150 per worker, whereas purchasing the one-size-fits-all, non-prescription bifocal safety glasses can run about $15. If 100 workers in 1,000 at a facility are in need of prescription safety glasses, this would equal savings of $13,500.

“This represents a tremendous amount of savings, especially for large companies,” says Westerdal. “Today, a very high percentage of the work force is over 40, where the need for bifocals starts to appear.”

How Can Technology Help?

Taking advantage of techological offerings also can help the older workforce. For workers dependent on computers to perform their daily activities, for example, new technology can be customized to meet their individual needs.

Technology is a tool that can be used to keep employees on the job and productive, according to Robert Sinclair, director of the Accessibility Business Group at Microsoft Corp.

“We have changed the way we have thought and talked about technology,” Sinclair points out. “Computers and technologies have been deemed too long to be confusing and complex. All people benefit from an environment in which it is easier and safer to move and function.”

Many of the physiological changes associated with aging, such as failing vision, can be accommodated with current Microsoft software, according to Sinclair. For instance, standard accessibility features built into Microsoft's operating systems allow users to increase font size, change font settings or choose different colors for the screen display.

Other examples include the option for users to receive announcements from their computers through sound or visual notifications , such as a “ding” or dialogue box that notifies users of new e-mail messages.

“The number of solutions on the market are huge,” Sinclair says. “This means companies have options when wanting to address the challenges of their work force and by doing so, they are not just increasing their work potential, but also can keep them safe.”

Gibson adds companies should make the accommodations older workers need, whether it's as simple as increasing the size of the font in written communications to installing a new operating system. It's especially important to do this, he says, because there may not be enough workers to quickly fill the Baby Boomer generation's jobs in the future.

“It's important to take care of this older work group,” she notes. “If we can help them see what they are doing much better with some of the safeguards that we described, and coupled with their years of experience, their productivity levels could potentially be as good as when they had perfect eyesight.”

Stylin' at Any Age

There's a common refrain when manufacturers promote their lines of personal protective equipment. It starts out, “This is not your grandfather's…” and you fill in the blank: hand protection, foot protection or eye protection.

These days, says Michael Franz, senior product manager, Uvex Rx Eyewear, even your grandpa wants good-looking safety eyewear.

Franz points out that the majority of the population — workers included — needs some type of vision correction. Most of those people wear glasses some or all of the time. While protection is paramount and properly corrected vision is important, style has come into play when mature workers are choosing protective eyewear.

“There was this idea that older workers don't care what they look like,” says Franz. “Maybe that's true when you're 80, but that's not true of people in their 60s and 70s. They still want to look good.”

Uvex Rx Eyewear has 70 styles in its product line, and Franz says the trends in safety eyewear follow the trends in consumer eyewear by about 3-5 years. For example, progressive lenses began taking the place of traditional bifocals and trifocals several years ago. This trend now is moving into prescription safety eyewear.

“I've been in this business for 35 years. I could get any kind of frames and lenses I want for free,” says Franz, “but I wear safety prescription glasses.”

And the new styles allow him to do it because no one would point to them and think, “Ugh. Safety glasses.”

“When you meet someone, what do you look at? Their face,” says Franz. “And the majority of our population is over 40 and the majority of those people are wearing glasses. Why should the style trends that drive you change just because you have to wear safety glasses at work?”

Accomodations and Tips for Older Workers

Experts Sheree Gibson and Robert McKinley offer a series of suggestions employers can implement to easily and inexpensively ensure the comfort, productivity and safety of an aging workforce.

  • Increase area lighting. This especially should be done in dimly lit areas where there's a significant amount of traffic, such as stairwells. Consider increasing task lighting, such as desk lamps, by 60 percent.

  • Incorporate good housekeeping within your facility to reduce the risk of trips and falls over objects.

  • Reduce glare. Light sources should be perpendicular to the work area/computer screen, rather than directly in front of or behind it. Use indirect lighting or glare-reducing screens on computers.

  • Increase the size of fonts in written communications and on the computer screen, and reduce visual clutter in print materials and on the monitor screen.

  • Make magnifiers or magnifying glasses readily available.

  • Clean computer screens regularly and adjust the screen color and contrast so that the print is most legible. Use high-resolution monitors with larger screens.

  • Schedule or encourage regular visits to an eye doctor.

  • Encourage employees to take frequent breaks when reading, computing and performing work that requires intense visual focus.

  • Remind employees to be aware of neck and shoulder posture when wearing bifocals. Bifocal wearers often adopt a working posture that can strain neck muscles and may extend to the shoulder, resulting in neck, shoulder and elbow injuries and even carpal tunnel syndrome.

  • Use brighter colors to draw the focus and attention to important materials such as safety signs and symbols.

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